Friday, March 25, 2016

Beauty in an Ugly Death

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It shouldn’t be too surprising that, after 2,000 years or so, we have become a little de-sensitized about the reality of a gruesome death. It used to be horrible. Crucifixions used to be humiliating and embarrassing. It was all about watching a guy die in slow motion. For the first hundred years of the Christian Church, no one even used an image of a cross or equated it with Christianity, and for hundreds of years after the cross finally came into use, it still lacked an image of the dead Christ. It was that bad.
“The Thieves’ Legs Are Broken”
Jacques Joseph Tissot. c. 1890.
(Brooklyn Museum, N.Y.)

But a lot has happened since then. The courts don’t mete out that sort of punishment anymore, and what used to be a terrible reminder for Christians has become an honorable badge of sorts. The image of that death has become such a symbol of who we are that, for the past 1,000 years, we have tasked artisans to fashion little replicas of it so that we may wear it as jewelry. We occasionally craft it out of precious metal, throw in a few diamonds and sapphires, and wow our sense of loyalty and pride. At which point the wheels usually begin to fall off the cart.

No one would be caught dead wearing a pendant of a little naked man, even though nakedness was integral to the crucifixion. Folks wouldn’t wear such a thing in public. That would just be wrong. For Good Friday’s consideration, therefore, I’ve chosen four pieces that take a slightly tangential approach to the crucifixion of Christ and, in doing so, jar us to our senses and force us to forget jewel-encrusted Fabergé crosses. What is common among the artwork I’ve chosen is that they address Scripture’s detail about the legs of the thieves who were crucified with Jesus.
“Christ Between Two Thieves”
Peter Paul Rubens. 1620.
(Koninklijk Museum
Voor Schone Kunsten,
Antwerp, Belgium)

“The Thieves Legs Are Broken” is a little watercolor by one-time student of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Jacques Joseph Tissot. The man was a successful Parisian artist who eventually took on the task during the late 1800s of painting Bible illustrations. When taking the sum of Tissot’s work, this particular piece is decidedly lackluster. It has the appearance of a preparatory sketch that was hurriedly completed. Perhaps it was. Even with its unrefined lines and historical inaccuracies, however, this little painting gives us cause to stop in our tracks. Clubs are raised in readiness to do some ugly business.

Christ’s crucifixion didn’t fit the schedule of the Jews or the Roman rulers, and there was a sense of urgency to carry through on the proceedings and get the job done already. Death by slow motion would have to be put on the fast track, and that meant helping things along by breaking the legs of the crucified so they could neither relieve labored breathing nor prolong inevitable suffocation.

Peter Paul Rubens piece takes a more elegant path than does Tissot, but if the viewer spends any amount of time studying the Rubens painting, the same conclusion is reached. A soldier wields a compact iron batton, while the thief screams in pain and anticipation of what he knows is imminent.
Jan Provoost. c. 1500.
(Groeningemuseum, Belgium)

Northern Renaissance masters Robert Campin and Jan Provoost show after-the-fact ugliness. Jan Provoost’s piece follows conventions of other paintings using robust compositions. A deeply detailed tableau is displayed, showing nearly every element of the event. It is crowded with figures in theatrical poses, and is meant to give a thorough telling of the narrative. One small detail are red slashes on the legs of the thieves, and, given the spear in the side of our Savior, it is hinted that the fellow-crucified have been dealt some excruciating blows to quicken their deaths.

If Provoost gave us a hint regarding the thieves' legs, Robert Campin rubs our faces in it. The legs of the thief in his painting are not only slashed, but the bones are also misaligned in compound fractures. It elicits nearly as much pity from the viewer as does The Christ, whose legs were left unbroken. Which leads us to the point of this gruesome and disgusting, yet significant, detail of Holy Scripture.
“The Crucified Thief”
[Surviving panel of lost triptych]
Robert Campin. 1410.
(Städelsches Kunstinstitut,
Frankfurt, Germany)

Jesus Christ did not have His legs broken because He had already died. He did not prolong His own death by relieving the pain. He gave Himself up to death, and, indeed, charged at death headlong, obeying the Will of His Father. Even Pilate marveled that Jesus had died so quickly. It was not that Christ was lacking in strength or fortitude or manliness or Divine power. It was that He gladly laid down His own life for us; for your sins; for mine – only to take up His life again. This, so that we may do the same, taking up our lives again once we breathe our last.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Devil in the Details

Copyright © Edward Riojas
North Rose Window, Chartres Cathedral

We must be blind. Did you know that rose windows in the cathedrals of Europe are based on Hindu mandalas? That little nugget of falsehood recently floated into social media atop a fresh dollop of horse manure, raising the hackles of nearly everyone, including me.

According to some brainless twit, the rose window is similar to the Hindu symbol of the cosmos – too similar. Therefore the rose window’s mandala-like appearance was obviously of the devil. Huh?

I thought superstition of this level got snuffed out after the Salem witchcraft trials. Apparently not. Smart folk thankfully pay little heed to this kind of ignorance, but it still may be wise to take aim at a few similar examples of equally-questionable visuals, if only to highlight the buffoonery behind each.
Starbucks logo, Cross crosslet, and Baphometis (Satanic) logo

Coffee must surely be of the devil. It’s naturally dark and bitter, and check out what’s brewing in the Starbucks logo. A rather weak argument that was long on words and short on logic attempted to show remarkable similarities between the coffee maker’s logo and a variation of the Baphomet (Satanic) symbol. The only real similarity was in words separated by stars and wrapped around each logo’s respective image. Too bad the same convention can be seen in a mountain of logos from the past hundred years. It’s strange that they didn’t take their satanic-link argument to the Cross crosslet of antiquity, which is obviously much closer in appearance. Being Christians of the fringe variety, perhaps they didn’t want to shoot themselves in the foot and risk cleaving a hoof.
Former Procter and Gamble logo

Similar satanic accusations were raised with a logo of slightly older vintage –  Procter and Gamble’s former moon and stars logo that paid homage to the original 13 Colonies. Apparently, a few straight-laced folks took umbrage at the moon’s “horns” and a hidden, inverted “666” in the beard. What?! Procter and Gamble’s corporate identity has since been given a major facelift with an anticeptic, text-only logo, so as not to offend the moronic contingency.

Apparently, there is all sorts of trouble inherent in common visual devices. The Star of David, dots inside of circles, “swooshes” (whatever that means), twin towers, the numeral “6” and stars in general are all suspect. I guess you’d better lower Old Glory and hang out the braided garlic.

Unfortunately, there are those among us who can see nothing but subversive and satanic references in everything. Indeed, it is the only thing they WANT to see. They squint and see three sixes in the Walt Disney signature. They see satanic references in Google Chrome’s logo. They see all kinds of devilry in auto logos, energy drink logos, and communications logos. These are the types of hicks who see visions in carpet stains and leaking radiator fluid and dishes of macaroni and cheese (Okay, I get that one). It’s only a short step for them to make divinations from chicken livers and knuckle bones.

I don’t know where folks get this stuff. Maybe they have better eyesight than the rest of us. Maybe they’re trying to protect society from all manner of devilry. More likely, they’re just idiots. What is more dangerous than inert images interpreted as heresy are those who are themselves tightly-laced with questionable theology and overt paranoia.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Dipping Into "The Well of Moses"

Copyright © Edward Riojas
Fragment of Christ, from
“The Well of Moses”
Claus Sluter. 1395-1406.
(Musée Archéologique, Dijon)

I’m guessing most folks would be surprised at the mental catalog of famous art pieces rattling around in their own heads. I can guarantee, however, that one or two of the more famous images lodged in their gray matter were not the original intent of the artist.

Take the Parthenon. It is arguably one of the most recognizable facades on the planet, but if we could see it in all its original polychromed glory, someone in the crowd would undoubtedly exclaim, “What the?! That’s not right!” The Greeks had a penchant for painting all their sculpture in rather gaudy color, and it’s only because the natural elements have eroded the paint that we readily recognize it in its present condition.

Similarly, most people would ask, “What the heck is THAT doing up there?!,” when seeing Rodin’s “The Thinker” atop his “Gates of Hell.” We have become more familiar with the piece as a separate sculpture instead of a single piece in its original, larger context.

One of my very favorite sculptures follows both scenarios. Claus Sluter’s “Well of Moses” is not what it used to be, but I for one am completely happy with it as it is. It was originally sculpted around 1400 as a funerary monument to Burgundian leader John the Fearless at the Carthusian monastery of Chartreuse de Champmol in Dijon, France.
Original, overall design of
“The Well of Moses”

Sluter’s design for the piece was well documented, and a copy was made, but the passing of time and actions of boneheads have left us with an incomplete version of the original. As a testament to Sluter’s talent, what remains is still a masterpiece of Gothic sculpture.

The original design was a theological triumph. A crucifixion scene, containing Mary, the mother of our Lord, Mary Magdalene, John, and the crucified Christ topped the piece. Supporting the crucifixion was a base composed of six prophets and smaller figures of weeping angels. The whole was to be the centerpiece for a fountain – an allegory to the Fountain of Life.
Figure of Moses from
“The Well of Moses”

Unfortunately, weathering of the exposed, upper piece was unavoidable. So too were ravages of the French Revolution, not to mention problems inherent with large amounts of water. Only a fragment of the crucified Christ remains, and is now housed in a nearby museum. The elements also dulled original coloration and gilding, and eliminated some delicate embellishments, such as a pair of copper spectacles on the figure of Jeremiah, but the present, subtle blue and gold is decidedly better and allows the sculptural voice to resonate more deeply.

The figure of Moses, even with the erroneous addition of horns, is simply imposing. So, too, are figures of the prophets David, Jeremiah, Daniel, Zechariah, and Isaiah, each posed in deeply-modelled robes. Zechariah confronts the viewer with a penetrating gaze, while David addresses the viewer in a regal pose. It is even clear through the subtle sculpting of Jeremiah that he does, indeed, need the now-absent glasses to read the Scripture in his hand.
The prophets David and
Jeremiah from “The Well of Moses.”
Note the notch in David’s robe
that originally held an

Others may argue that total restoration is always an imperative. I prefer to take it on a case-by-case basis. It is nearly impossible to imagine the Venus de Mio with arms intact, but I can certainly imagine poor Venus as less popular and less endearing had she been handed down to us whole. Likewise, I love the visual power behind Claus Sluter’s sculpture, and appreciate its artistic relevance – even when separated from its original role as a mere pedestal for something greater.

Friday, March 4, 2016

What Do You Stand For?

Copyright © Edward Riojas
“The Three Soldiers”
Frederick Hart. 1984.
(Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial,
Washington, D.C.)

The U.S. was in all kinds of upheaval during the 1960s and, though I was a young child, I had a fairly good sense of what a lot of it was about. For one thing, we were mired in the middle of the Vietnam War. Nightly news brought the ugliness of it to our living rooms, which didn’t help. The draft pulled “our boys” away from home and into a distant jungle. Body bags came home from “Nam” and we mourned. Soldiers walked off the tarmac when heading home and were ignored — or worse. We wanted the quagmire to go away and be forgotten, and for years we treated the veterans in like manner.

Years after they all finally came home, I attended a 4th of July parade and realized that the national attitude had changed. Maybe our collective shame finally came to a head. Maybe we finally realized the cost and the sacrifice of those who served, remembering those who gave their lives, and being thankful toward those who still lived among us.
“Salute the Flag”
Norman Rockwell

The Vietnam vets weren’t yet close to me in that parade, but I could hear the roar of the crowd. This ragtag unit of floppy-hatted men did not march to a crisp cadence, and many sported ponytails and beards and prosthetic limbs, but when their ranks came into view, we stood as one and cheered as never before. Sitting was not an option.

There are other times and places in which we make a visual symbol with the same physical gesture. King George II is said to have originated the practice of standing during the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s “Messiah.” Apparently, the king was so moved by the piece that he stood. And when the king stood, everyone stood. We may have thumbed our noses at the monarch, but we have followed his suit ever since.

We even stand during the most mundane events. If you don’t get off your duff during the National Anthem at a sporting event, you risk some very nasty looks and the occasional flying beer cup. You’ll get the same looks at school if you don’t stand during the Pledge of Allegiance, and you might get a bonus trip to the principal’s office.
“The Village Wedding”
Sir Samuel Luke Fildes.
1883. (Private Collection)

The bride nary takes one step down the church aisle before everyone gets on their feet. It isn’t so much a sign of respect from days past as it is the first chance to see a spectacular dress or a poignant moment or a wardrobe fail. But to remain seated would either send a message of disapproval or announce one’s membership in the party-pooper club.

So why does it become such a dilemma when the cross of our Lord starts up the same aisle as walked by the bride? We are so ready to give standing ovations after mediocre performances, but we wonder if we should stand in honor of the One who causes the waves to clap their hands. Thankfully, the congregation I belong to has been well-trained in reverence, but I have been in much larger sister congregations in which folks steal last-minute glances in the bulletin to see if the words “Please stand” are actually in print.
“A Medieval Christmas -
The Processional”
Albert Beck Wenzell. 1899.
(Private collection)

It really is simple. You stand for questionable brides. You stand for one last Barry Manilow song. You stand during the National Anthem played in the key of whatever. You stand for veterans who risked lives for the safety of your nation. Please stand for the Lord of all  — even if no one else does. Stand for the One who is the Groom of His bride, the Church; for the One who causes us to sing a new song; for the One who richly blesses our land; for the Savior who gave His own life that you might live. And as His symbol of salvation passes by, you may return yet another symbol of reverence — and bow.