Friday, December 30, 2016

Little House in the Big Church

Photo courtesy of

Copyright © Edward Riojas

This isn’t about Laura Ingalls Wilder, although it could have been, had Pa attended something other than a Congregational church. This post takes a quick look at things common in some churches – specifically paraments and vestments – things that would have been decidedly lacking in Congregational churches back in Laura’s day. Even among men of the cloth.

One might assume that pastoral vestments and church paraments are meant solely to pretty-up a modern sanctuary, but there are often back-stories involving common-sense practicality overlaid with deep symbolism. When the former became less of a concern, the latter became more important. Altar cloths and coverings, for example, were originally used to keep the Bread and Wine free from dirt, condensation, and falling plaster. Vestments were used not only to identify those in the Office of the Ministry, but also to show that they, too, needed to be “covered” by Christ’s righteousness. They still do.

A new collaboration with Carrie Roberts, who heads the fledgling Ecclesiastical Sewing enterprise, has reminded me of the depth of meaning within church visuals, and coupled with it comes a discipline in which I find myself a novice at best. Roberts is no blue-haired, altar guild lady. She holds a fashion degree and has a deep interest in the historicity of sanctuary cloths. While machines largely produce the embroideries that her company offers, Roberts has received instruction in hand embroidery at Hand and Lock and the Royal School of Needlework, both based in London, along with the Williamsburg School of Needlework.

During our initial correspondence, words like “frontal” and “superfrontal” and “orphrey” and “galloon” and “drops” were thrown about with seeming abandon, and it was up to me to catch on. I was approached by Roberts to create exclusive designs for her enterprise. Both of us understand the need for confessional designs that are well-conceived and produced. If you happen to be Lutheran, it's probably best that you keep watch for what will soon come of our collaborative efforts.

Our first project is a set commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Church. We could have slapped Luther’s Seal on a nice embroidery and been done with it, but we envisioned something a bit more historic and a lot more confessional. It is a bit too early to show the finished products which Ecclesiastical Sewing will be offering, but suffice it to say that, yes, there will be Luther’s Seal, along with the Six Chief Parts, and the VDMA Cross – a device used by the Hanseatic League back in Luther's day. The four letters of that cross are shorthand for “The Word of the Lord endures forever.”

Ecclesiastical Sewing offers various fabrics (one of which I had a small hand in designing), embroideries, patterns and the like for all paraments and vestment applications, including chasubles. And speaking of chasubles, the fancy vestment has  humble origins in a rather ordinary, poncho-like, Roman cloak – which wearers fondly referred to as “a little house.”

Friday, December 23, 2016

Snoozing in the Stable

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The vision is nearly perfect. Baby Jesus is swaddled in a manger. Cattle are lowing. Heavenly light streams through an opening in the stable roof as an angel descends into the rustic tableau. Mary reclines near the newborn Christ. And Joseph is getting a little shut-eye.
“Joseph's Dream in the Stable at Bethlehem”
Rembrandt van Rijn. 1645.
(Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

There are oodles of artistic interpretations of the Holy Nativity and events surrounding the birth of the Christ – each loaded with symbolism, drama and reverence. A fair amount, however, veer away from what most might envision and show Joseph in deep sleep.

Poor Joseph. He might as well be snoring in church. There is a slight stigma that Joseph can’t seem to shake, and it’s due, in part, to paintings like Rembrandt’s “Joseph's Dream in the Stable at Bethlehem.” In defense of the dozer, Joseph is getting some badly-needed divine input. Because he was given so much direction through dreams, Joseph is often depicted as sleeping – even when it seems most inappropriate.
“Joseph’s Dream”
Georges de La Tour. c. 1640.
(Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, France)

It is so easy to take Joseph's sleep out of context that the idea becomes laughable. Orthodox imagery goes light on Joseph. Icons of the Nativity show Joe sitting with a hand on his jaw, as if he has a sore tooth. In reality, he is supporting his sleepy head.

Georges de La Tour takes the sleep-deprived saint and adds the idea that Joseph was older than dirt in his painting, “Joseph’s Dream.” The artist then increases the saint’s age by contrasting it with an excessively-juvenile angel. We can only assume that Joseph’s walker has been stored nearby.

And then there’s the trip to Egypt. Joseph is more than road-weary in Orazio Gentilischi’s “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” – he has crashed and burned. Gentilischi’s painting is uncomfortable on so many levels that we find ourselves gazing at the donkey out of sheer desperation. (Would SOMEBODY please wake up or cover up!)
“Rest on the Flight into Egypt”
Orazio Gentilischi. c. 1625.
(Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, UK)

Unfortunately, the sleeping thing has gotten a tad out of hand. Pope Francis, we are told, has a little statue of sleeping Joseph in his Vatican office. There’s no word on whether the rest of the Holy Family is in the pontiff’s office. One may wonder if there is a close connection to Joseph being the patron saint of lost causes. But I digress.

It becomes odd when those little statues are taken out of the Nativity and consequently out of context, then used for all manner of odd rites and prayers and superstition. For those who indulge in the cutsie, little Joseph figurines, I have a few words for you: “WAKE UP! Your Light has come!”

Friday, December 16, 2016

Getting Cozy with Currier & Ives

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“...It'll nearly be like a picture print
By Currier and Ives.
These wonderful things are the things
We remember all through our lives!”

~ excerpt from “Sleigh Ride”

Look at me. It’s almost Christmas and I’m getting all nostalgic.

Leroy Anderson’s lyrics have been sung by countless vocalists. The words echo off our smiling brains even when “Sleigh Ride” is performed by an orchestra, sans vocals. With sleigh bells jingling in the background and the clip-clop of hooves keeping cadence, we can vividly see the quintessentially-quaint image of a cannon exploding aboard the U.S.S. Princeton. Wait! What? That’s not the image!
“Explosion Aboard the USS Princeton”
N. Currier Lith & Pub. 1844.

Let’s try this again. Surely, among the ‘things we remember all through our lives’ is an image of the New York Merchant Exchange burning to the ground. That‘s loaded with holly and tinsel, isn’t it?

You’re right. Those lithographs were produced by the ballooning “picture print” company when Nathaniel Currier was alone at the helm; that was before James Merritt Ives joined the firm, and before Ives became a full partner in 1857.

During the company’s strong run, artists were cranking out two to three new images per week – for 64 years. Nostalgic winter scenes were but a small part of what they produced. Everything from political satire to newsworthy disasters to fluffy kittens with balls of yarn to embarrassingly-racist trash was fair game. While keeping close tabs on public demand and keeping cost at a minimum, the affordable prints ended up on everyone’s walls. Women’s magazines fanned the flames, encouraging housewives to decorate with the lithographs.
“Ruins of the Merchant’s Exchange N.Y.”
N. Currier Lith & Pub. 1835.
After John H. Bufford

The enterprise would have been the envy of the late Thomas Kinkade. Operations taking up three floors of a New York building were streamlined by late-comer Ives, causing it to churn out pedestrian art by the boatload. That artwork often originated from well-known contemporary artists including George Inness, Thomas Nast, and Eastman Johnson. The firm also employed artists who specialized in particular genres – Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, who specialized in sports; George H. Durrie, who supplied winter scenes; and Frances Flora Bond Palmer, who created panoramic American landscapes.

Ives was keen to put the burgeoning company on a pace with the rest of the industrial revolution. Preparation of lithography stones was conducted on one floor. Hand-operated printing was done on another floor. Hand coloring was executed on yet a different floor.

Even the hand coloring was handled in assembly line fashion. A group of talented women applied the color after the black image was printed. Each woman was tasked with a single color, and passed on the print to the next colorist along a line until the image was completely colored.
“The Road Winter”
N. Currier Lith & Pub. 1853.

Those images produced by the long-defunct firm have endured, and are still collected. But it‘s the Christmas-y images that pull at our nostalgic strings.

The passing of time has helped us forget Currier and Ives’ penchant for sensational disasters. It lets us ignore the outdated visual drivel that bloated the company‘s inventory. It urges us to forgive the firm’s politically-incorrect images. The cream of their efforts, its seems, has slowly risen in the form of fluffy nostalgia, to be regaled in song and yearned for in a bass-ackwards sort of way. The epitome of Currier and Ives work is “The Road Winter,” an image of a one-horse open sleigh pulling a young couple through a pristine landscape. It was responsible in part – if not in whole – for “Sleigh Ride’s” lyrics.

The lithograph’s popularity is somewhat remarkable, given the original art was possibly not intended for the general public. The image was probably a portrait of Nathaniel Currier and his wife, created as a wedding gift by his staff.

Friday, December 9, 2016

What Does This Mean?

All images
Copyright © Edward Riojas.
Symbols may not be
reproduced for any reason.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It started with the Chi-Rho.

Someone once asked me if it was a secret, Masonic symbol. Another person wondered why we use such a “catholic” symbol. Sigh.

We have confessional creeds and explanations of doctrine and volumes written on what we believe, but to my knowledge there are no classes dealing with the stuff that often confronts us in the church sanctuary. Christian symbolism isn’t necessary for salvation, so it often gets ignored. Ignorance of those things that teach, however, can be a bad thing.

Please consider this, therefore, a primer of the very basics of Christian symbolism. Whether you are as dumb as a rock or you have a list of credentials longer than my arm, chances are you will learn a little something about the stuff you stare at every Sunday.

The few images considered here are but a tiny fraction of the thousand or so symbols I’ve collected and drawn for a [very] back-burner book project on the subject. Stay tuned – it might even get published before the Lord’s return.

The Cross: You might be surprised that this is NOT the oldest symbol of the Christian Church – not even by a long shot. Why? It was an image of public torture and death. The cross was ugly and embarrassing. It took a couple of hundred years after Christ ascended before the Church began using it.

The Crucifix: It took another hundred years or so after the cross gained popularity before an image of a dead or dying Christ was even considered. Knowing this adds immense power to St. Paul’s boasting in the cross.

The Good Shepherd: Now this symbol is OLD. It actually pre-dates Christ (which isn't, of course, possible). The 23rd Psalm was known by the Jews, and images of pastoral David were popular in their culture. Images of a shepherd deity were also known in the Roman empire. It became an easy step, therefore, to use a very similar image to represent the Lord, Jesus Christ in the role of the Good Shepherd.

Chi-Rho (XP): Simply put, it’s a Greek abbreviation for “Christ.” We might write it in English as “CR.”

I-H-S: There must be millions of brass altar crosses out there with this little thing attached. It is a Latinized version of the Greek abbreviation for “Jesus.” Some have stretched it to mean “Jesus, Savior of Men.” Others have assigned its use to off-shoots of Roman Catholicism, but that’s pushing it. Confused? Good, because you might also see the variation “I-H-C,” as depicted here.

The Tri-radiant Nimbus: Now we’re getting fancy. A special device was needed to differentiate the Lord from the rest of Christendom when depicted together in art, so the three-rayed halo was employed. No, it is NOT a cross. It is reserved for depictions of The Father, and of The Son, and of The Holy Ghost. See how they did that?

Nimbus:  A halo (or nimbus) is a very old pagan device. Christians, being clever enough to re-purpose garbage to their own advantage, began using halos to identify Christians in artwork. To my knowledge, I don’t have one hovering behind my head, and I’ve never painted one on a self-portrait. But once I leave this world, if you would be so kind...

Friday, December 2, 2016

Not So Fast

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Whatever happened to Advent?

Hobgoblins and warty-nosed witches were hardly in the clearance bins when strains of “White Christmas” started piping into stores. Maybe Advent accidentally got thrown in with that old Halloween merchandise. Maybe the lament of those waiting for the redeeming King got lost in the din of a Burl Ives-infused “Holly Jolly Christmas.”

This isn’t about a humbug attitude over holiday cheer. It IS about working ourselves up into a joyful lather weeks ahead of schedule, while forgetting the reason for celebration. The joy in celebrating the Savior requires an understanding that we need saving in the first place. In case you don’t know, life isn’t one big snow globe of happiness. It is fraught with heartache and misery and strife – all manufactured by our own sin.

Efforts to illustrate this with a dandy piece of Advent art were quickly halted by a wasteland devoid of examples. Sure, there are plenty of violet-tinged pieces, but most have a star, or the Holy family, or magi on the road. There is little contrition in those images
“By the Rivers of Babylon” Gebhard Fugel. 1920.
(Galerie Fähre, Germany)

Perhaps it’s a stretch, but an Advent thread surely runs through the Babylonian captivity. Gebhard Fugel’s “By the Rivers of Babylon” hits close to the mark. His image shows people on the verge of losing all hope. It is hard to look at because we don’t want to identify with them – especially with Bing Crosby crooning in the background and magical snowflakes drifting by our windows.

The Babylonian captives were a pretty messed-up bunch looking forward to the Lord’s deliverance. It took the heavy hand of the Lord to wipe them clean of pride and dissuade them from running after foreign gods, but eventually they got the point. And they waited. And hoped. And waited. These are "The people that in darkness sat."

One wonders if a chord was struck much later among the Jews, when Christ mentioned the “distant land” where a prodigal wasted his inheritance. One wonders if either account strikes a chord with us today.

The immeasurable joy of Christmas comes when we remember the God who descended from His royal throne and into a cesspool of humankind – all to save us from ourselves and our deserved sentence of death.

Christmas will not sustain you if you think you can sustain yourself apart from the Savior. If, however, you are down-trodden and miserable and tired and hurting and hoping, then the arrival of the Savior – even in the form of a fragile infant – is reason indeed to hope, and reason for celebration.