Friday, December 29, 2017

What makes your Christmas?

"Madonna and Child" Edward Riojas.
1998. (Collection of the artist)
Copyright © Edward Riojas
Copyright © Edward Riojas

A caller informed the radio DJ, “It isn’t Christmas unless I make banket.”

That was one reaction when a local [Christian] radio station fielded the question, “What one thing ‘makes’ your Christmas?,” and there followed all manner of warm and fuzzy traditions that, apparently, make the season bright. It was rather sad that most callers danced around the obvious. Whether we care to admit it, however, most of us have a similar list of ingredients. Things like “family,” “music,” and “presents” usually find their way into the recipe. Personally, I could throttle all those who prayed so earnestly for a “white Christmas.”

While I can be as sentimental as the next guy, it’s irritating that we put strings on Christmas. It’s aggravating that we feel the need to feed our emotions, and work ourselves up to some euphoric plateau we think worthy of the Holy Day. Christmas, however, comes whether we feel it or not. Christmas is not a state of mind. Most of the time, Christmas is definitely not in our hearts. Claiming that Christmas is in our hearts belies the reality of Jesus’ birth, and is contrary to Holy Scripture.

“He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive Him.” –  John 1:10-11

The simple fact that there was no room for them should give a clue to how much of the Christ was in the hearts of those so near to the first Christmas. Add to that a cranky, self-absorbed ruler who took offense when another king was born, and it’s obvious that many people didn’t want Him. At all.

But still He came.

Even later, when the ruler of the universe revealed His own identity, few wanted Him. Most were not getting warm and fuzzy inside. Jesus was not wanted – not THIS Jesus, anyway. Oh, sure, crowds fed their emotions, and worked themselves up to a plateau of hatred and disgust. They had so much Christmas in their hearts that they nailed Jesus to a tree. The all-knowing God knew this would happen.

And still He came.

That Christ Jesus, knowing beforehand what He must go through to save us; that He, the ruler of the cosmos and only God, descended from His royal throne for the sake of undeserving man, shows the everlasting, perfect love of our dear Lord.

It doesn’t really matter if there is banket or snow or even family for Christmas. It doesn’t matter if your tree is real or fake or if there aren’t any presents under it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a tree at all. It doesn’t matter if you feel alone or if you feel like trash. Christ came for you. Christ came for me. That, in essence, is what makes Christmas.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Hymn for Christmas

"Madonna and Child" Edward Riojas. 2017.
(Copyright © Edward Riojas.
Neither text nor image may be reproduced.) 

Copyright © Edward Riojas

O Boundless Lord of Heaven

O boundless Lord of heaven,
Who tented far below
The canopy of angels
That man Thy Grace might know,

Creation Thou didst measure – 
A span of Thine own hand.
The seas, Thou didst create them,
And richly blessed the land.

Where dost Thy presence faileth?
Where dost Thy train not go?
What space might e’er contain Thee,
That we, our Lord, might know?

Thine never-ending glory
Thou settest near aside;
The Swaddled for the Boundless,
Among us to abide.

The snare wast set for Satan,
Who plagues our fallen race,
To tempt the Tempter’s blood-lust
And thereby sin efface.

O ever-gracious Christ-Child,
To Thee we give our praise;
To Father and The Spirit,
Our gladsome voices raise! Amen.

 – © EJR

Friday, December 15, 2017

Towering Consequence

"The Tower of Siloam." Edward Riojas
(Year C, Lent 3, Ecclesiastical Art CD)
Copyright © Edward Riojas

Death and destruction. If it bleeds, it leads. The Jerusalem events made huge headlines in Jesus’ day, but Scripture spares us the particulars.

Luke 13 records a sensational event that is mashed together with another equally-disturbing news item — both brought up while Jesus was preaching to crowds on topics of interpreting the time and settling accounts with accusers.

Being eager to add a bit of input to Christ’s sermon, a few in the crowd brought up the rather horrific account of Pilate adding martyr’s blood to Jewish sacrificial blood. Apparently, the crowd’s attentiveness was waning. Apparently, they wanted to hear about something more juicy than interpreting the time.

It is human nature. No one but fallen man so richly relishes wallowing in the sins and foibles and misfortunes of his fellows. We have this morbid attraction to brokenness. In our misguided quest to fix things, we also love to place fault where we think it belongs.

Thus, Jesus brings up another event that surely was a topic of their discussion: The collapse of the tower of Siloam. One must be living under a rock to not feel a twinge of recollection from 9/11. Christ then asked a rhetorical question that was a bigger news flash for His audience: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them; do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

While our fallen state and the compounding of our sins certainly doesn't help our brokenness this side of Paradise, the tragedies of this life are not the direct result of specific sins. In some corners of Christendom, however, this is news, indeed. It may be because the Lord did indeed bring punishment upon specific sins of the Israelites. However, your unemployment and your flat tire and your failing grade and your diabetes and your chemotherapy have little, if anything, to do with some heinous sin. Those of you who beg to differ probably have a bigger argument with the Lord.

If the truth be told; if Divine punishment was doled out with such ferocity for our sin, then more women would give birth to ashes. We are that inbred with sin.

The rude question of “What sin did you commit to merit this?” is poorly aimed. A much better question is: “What did I do to merit Christ’s righteousness; what did I do to merit salvation?” In both cases, the answer is the same: Nothing.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Thirteen Cards A-Failing

Copyright © Edward Riojas

If you’re looking for sincerity, this isn’t the week.

I assume some of you have already mailed a batch of Christmas cards to friends and family. Others are opting out, and still others haven’t yet found the right card that is oozing with enough sentimentality – and glitter.

In an attempt to be helpful, I’ve decided to give you some ideas in the form of vintage greeting cards. One can hardly call them Christmas cards, in spite of the sentiments. I will try to give explanations where needed, or simply make stuff up. It's often better that way.

Let’s get started with the first one.

This is about as safe and useless as they come. A snowman with undisclosed "best" wishes. Seriously, that's the best you can do? And the only thing I wish is that they had picked blue for sky and snow instead of visceral red.

Everyone I know has root crops on their minds when the holidays roll around, so what's not to like about, uh, Mr. Beet, or whatever-the-heck he is, on a card. Makes sense to me.  Here's a hint: A walking stick and monocle will never sufficiently dress up something you pull out of the dirt. (My apologies to Mr. Peanut.)

Rockets and interplanetary travel have lots to do with Christmas. How else does Santa do it? Hopefully, jolly old St. Nick has miscalculated his trajectory, and will fly past Pluto and into a black hole.

"Kris Kringle" and "kleptomaniac" are pretty darn close in the dictionary. Otherwise, why would he give us a weird grimace with all that crap stuffed in his boots? Call security! This guy bypassed the checkout lanes and is already halfway out the door.

The Ghost of Chewbaccas Past is apparently not a new thing. Pondering the misery of frozen terriers during the holidays is also old hat. This card has "Merry" written all over it. Well, okay, only on the bottom in nearly-illegible type.

Here's an idea: Let's put dumb animals in a dumb tableau doing dumb things. Sheeesh. Everyone knows kangaroos don't wear slippers. They wear wingtips.

Let's spread a little cheer with a dead bird. Hey, there's always someone less fortunate than you, so put on your Stitchy McYarnpants sweater and smile for the camera already!

Drinking too much spiked eggnog is bad for all concerned, as is evident with little Suzy Snickerdoodle, who obviously fell down in front of her intoxicated cat. But we can make a card out of that.

A creepy Santa playing with dolls and an unconscious child warms the hearths and hearts of everyone. Yeah, right. I'm pretty sure some kind of interpersonal boundaries have been crossed here.

And what about clowns?! And policemen?! And a gutted deer?! I'd rather get roughed up by a Krampus than look at this uncomfortable scene.

Who knew the ornaments on your tree could be so heinous? Apparently, there's a part of Christmas that I've been missing.

Anyone want a helping of Christmas pudding? Just for the record: It's not my fault if you have nightmares of pockmarked, peg-legged men wearing glasses of milk on their heads. No wonder the artist used B-movie horror type and then stuck a fork in it.

Finally, a greeting card that actually says what I want it to say.

Friday, December 1, 2017

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In every communicative endeavor there are two parties involved. This is true of art. An audience does not benefit anything unless something is first produced, and the work of authors, artists and musicians is for naught unless there is an audience.

I was recently blessed in creating an image of the risen Christ behind the altar in a local church. Working on-site allowed occasional conversations with the pastor, and at several points Rev. David Rufner and I discussed the visage of Christ Jesus.

As an artist and creator of what must necessarily be an idealized image of Christ’s face, there is but one opportunity to render an appropriate likeness, and much thought and effort goes into its execution. For some scenarios – Jesus praying in Gethsemene, for example – it is fairly straightforward; simply show an anguished face dripping with sweaty blood. Well, okay, it is somewhat straightforward. In other scenarios it is not simple at all.

An artist is often torn between showing a just God and a loving God. There are Orthodox icons that attempt to show this very thing simultaneously and fail miserably in the attempt. A resurrected Christ, in similar manner, should show deep joy in being crucified for our benefit, but a toothy grin is simply wrong. The degree of expression becomes critical.

The viewer, too, is faced with a dilemma of equal importance. Like the goyim who approached Philip as recorded in John 12, we desire to see Jesus, but our expectations are rarely in tune with reality, and therein lies all manner of problems.
Detail of "Resurrected Christ"
Edward Riojas. 2017.
(New Hope Lutheran Church, Hudsonville, Mich.)
Copyright © Edward Riojas. Image may not be
reproduced for any purpose.

When St. John the Forerunner was in prison and wanted to definitively know about Jesus, the latter sent a message to John describing miraculous fulfillment of prophesies. Jesus then added the somewhat odd, “...Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Later in the same Gospel account, Jesus preaches about John, and asks some very pointed questions of his audience.

““What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. What then did you go out to see?””

John was indeed a prophet, but Jesus, in His role as Prophet, could have asked the pointed questions of Himself. We wish to see Jesus, but what do we go out to see? What do we expect to see? When confronted by the reality of Christ, does jealousy ensue as in the case of the Pharisees, or does awe manifest itself as in Peter’s confession?

In the case of the Resurrected Christ I painted for New Hope Lutheran Church, I am thankful that the image is not so crucial as the reality behind which it stands. How appropriate that my artwork, no matter how adequate, is but a pale shadow compared to the reality of Christ’s body and blood on the altar of the Lord. There is what the faithful come to see, and not only see, but to “Taste and see and the Lord is good.” Many might take offence. Others might content themselves with seeing a reed shaken by the wind – or less.

Not by our own determination or righteous resolve, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, are we brought to the portals of the sanctuary and humbly inquire, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

Friday, November 24, 2017

Tares Among Wheat

"Parable of the Wheat and the Tares" Abraham Bloemaert. 1624. (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

One Dutch master got it all wrong. Abraham Bloemaert painted “Parable of the Wheat and the Tares,” but he apparently didn’t have access to St. Matthew’s full account.

Perhaps others explained the parable to him. Maybe Bloemaert didn’t follow the Scriptural passage far enough to read how Christ Himself explained the parable. At any rate, the artist expounded on the one point that Jesus didn't explain and ignored most everything else that Jesus did.

It could very well be that Calvinism was steering Scripture in a moralistic direction in the wake of Luther’s reform. At any rate, Bloemaert’s rendition of the parable fully exploits the fact that the good farmer’s workers were sleeping while the enemy came to sow evil seed. Never mind the fact that Jesus didn’t even address the insignificance of the detail. Laziness was just plain wrong, and of the Devil.

Of course, the artist didn’t just stop with putting sleeping workers in the foreground of the painting – he underlined the fact, drew circles around it, and highlighted it in red. The sleepers – male and female – lay naked for all the world to see. A dove cote is elevated nearby – a symbol of slothfulness, since harvesting doves in this manner didn’t necessitate the bother of raising them. A goat and peacock serve as icing on the ugly cake of laziness, alluding to self-indulgence and pride, respectively. The overall image shows what happens when, in man’s slothfulness, Satan is allowed to run rampant. But that picture is wrong.
"Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat"
Attributed to Isaac Claesz van Swanenburg. c. 1600.
(Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

A different painting on the subject is attributed to Isaac Claesz van Swanenburg. “Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat” takes a more moderate approach, although the imagery still isn’t spot on. van Swanenburg’s piece lacks the heavy-handed moral preaching of Bloemaert’s. In the painting, the good farmer addresses the viewer while workers carry sheaves of wheat away and others carry sheaves of weeds to a huge fire. van Swanenburg, however, glosses over details of who exactly reaps the wheat and tares, assuming that the farmer’s workers are thus employed.

Christ’s parable is not aimed at moral living. It is aimed at comforting His own while they must live among the annoyances of heresy and evil men. In His explanation, Jesus simply states that Satan comes to sow evil men among His saints. The fact that Satan comes while the workers sleep simply points to Satan’s cunning and deception. Sleep is not the point. The sainted workers, however, are anxious to rid themselves of evil men and their heresy.

“Master... do you want us to gather [the tares]?”

This certainly seems righteously reasonable to us, and the question is echoed in another account in Jesus ministry. Jesus and His dicsiples were snubbed by a Samaritan village while they traveled toward Jerusalem.

“And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he [Jesus] turned and rebuked them.” (Luke 9: 54-55)

We may be eager to weed out rascals in the Kingdom, but we are not qualified for such a job of surgical precision. We are not reapers. That job simply isn’t ours. Rather, we should recognize heresy, avoid it, and pray ceaselessly that God’s Kingdom may come upon us. The Lord’s angels will do the harvesting at the last, and the tares, along with their bad fruit, will then be separated out from the good crop and utterly consumed.

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Christmas Gift Guide

"Förtrollade Skogen" ("Enchanted Forest") giclée print
9" x 24" / $80  •  13.5" x 36" / $135  •  17.5" x 48" / $160

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Christmas is coming; the goose is getting fat. blah, blah, blah...”

Who comes up with those lyrics, anyway?! And to top it off, I can only hear Kermit and Miss Piggy in my head when I suffer through that sorry song. Thankfully, there are far greater options when it comes to Advent and Christmas music – like Bach, Buxtehude, or anything else that doesn't involve an amphibian and a barnyard animal.
"Parable of the Buried Treasure" giclée print
10" x 16" / $75  •  15" x 24" / $110
19" x 32" / $150

The same is true when it comes to chucking crap in a shopping cart and calling it a “gift.” You know who you are: The one who slowly peruses an entire pink aisle with glazed-over eyes; the one who hefts a sausage/cheese/stale cracker box to estimate the amount of saturated fats contained therein; the one who decides Uncle Cliff really can use an air fryer. C’mon, there are alternatives, so let me help.

There is enough variety in what I offer to make everyone happy – including you. Whether it is a fine art print that reflects the Divine, or a whimsical image that teases the child within, or wearable, edgy art that makes a statement, each item will tell the recipient that you cared enough to find something a little extra special. What follows is a small sampling of items – each of which might appeal to that certain someone...
"There Was A Drake" giclée print
12" x 15" / $75  •   16" x 20" / $120

For the kid [in you]
My earliest “troll” painting was extremely popular with children of all ages, and prints found their way to doctors’ waiting rooms, kid’s rooms, and into collections of discerning adults. Prints of “Förtrollade Skogen” are available in a variety of sizes and prices. Of course, ‘Skogen’ is just one of several whimsical images that I offer. There are two other "troll" paintings done in the same format so they can be ordered in the same dimensions. As with all my giclée prints, prices include domestic shipping, etc.

Comfort in the home
One of my most popular sacred images is “The Parable of the Buried Treasure.” It’s slightly-different interpretation of the parable is appropriate for everyone, and serves as a constant reminder of our Hope in Christ Jesus. Another image in the same genre is “Precious in the Sight of The Lord.”

For the nursery
If you are searching for images that are perfectly cute for a nursery, please consider one or more prints from this set containing a drake that went out to rake. Oddly enough, they are based on an old mummers’ Christmas tune –the theme is how different animals work a farmer’s field, “on Christ-a-mas Day in the morning.”

For those with an attitude
What do you give a guy who rides a hog? A black t-shirt. What do you give a pastor who wears black all the time? A black t-shirt. What do you give anyone who is Lutheran and doesn’t appreciate papal bulls? THIS black t-shirt. Perfectly at home under an Armani suit and paired with jeans, you’ll be the envy of every Augustinian monk. Sizes S-XXL, while supplies last. $25 includes domestic shipping.
"Gospel Crucifix" giclée print
13.5" x 18" / $75
16.5" x 22" / $100

For home, wherever that is
These crucifix giclée prints can make a dorm room more like home for someone spreading their wings, or simply make any house more like a home. I offer a couple of variations, and in multiple sizes and prices. The version shown here contains the four Gospel writers on the arms of the cross. Another version shows blood and water pouring into Chalice and Baptismal font.

For parents, grandparents and little saints
I recently finished illustrating this fine, little book written by Ashlee and Rev. Gaven Mize, and it’s bound [see what I did there?!] to become a classic. While I don’t offer it on any of my sites, please allow me to steer you to places where they can be purchased. “God Loves Me Such That He Would Give” is available in hard cover and soft cover at Mize Family Books, Ad Crucem, and Amazon.

For an even greater mind-boggling selection, please visit or swing by my public Facebook page to see what’s new. As with all the products I offer, purchase inquiries funnel into my e-mail address, Send me a note if you’re interested in anything you see – and let me know if there’s something you don’t see. I promise I won’t send you down the pink aisle.

Friday, November 10, 2017

“God Loves Me Such That He Would Give:” The Little Book that Can

Cover art of the new book, available at Mize Family Books,
Ad Crucem, and Amazon

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I can still see my Dad loading up his briefcase – the one he would often take to congregational meetings or on the trips he had previously taken to St. Louis for Hispanic Outreach meetings. At times my late father would load his briefcase with a few copies of a newly-published book that I illustrated, trying to impress everyone with his son’s talent, and selling one or two in the process. That he did so showed fatherly pride – the kind that I dearly miss.

That was 1991, and the book testified to the fact that I was eager for illustration work in the form of a book deal. In theory, that book was a testament to the saving Grace of God. In theory. The book was a reprint of John Calvin Reid’s “The First Rainbow,” a Bible story book that was now lavishly illustrated by a little-known Lutheran artist and given a slightly longer shelf life. The author’s name should have been a clue and probably was, but I was ready for illustrating experience and, apparently, wasn’t quite so ready to be more discriminating.

I did gain experience, however, and it taught me to expect silly things from some Christian quarters. Images of skulls, for example, were a no-no in the book, even where illustrations of Goliath were concerned. Skulls, you must know, are of the devil. I never did quite figure that one out.

That first book. I didn't even
get credit on the cover.

What was worse, there was too much beating around the Scriptural bush where writing was concerned, and the Bible story book was obviously moralistic instead of being Christo-centric. I had sense enough, finally, to refrain from reading it to my own children. If you are willing to dig through the bargain corners of the internet, that sad book can now be had for nearly a nickle.

Now there is a much better book written by Rev. Gaven and Ashlee Mize. For its brevity of words, the contents of their little book, “God Loves Me Such That He Would Give,” far outweigh Reid’s attempt to catechize children. It is, above all, Christo-centric. Moral components tag along, faintly shadowing, but never outshining, the work of Christ Jesus on the cross and His continuing work in the life of the Church.

The illustrations I executed for the book work in a similar way. Utmost respect is given to the images of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection, but the illustrative technique also carries a nostalgiac, retro feel that compliments the major visual character in the book – a small boy. There is an additional layer of characters  – the boy’s playthings – that endear the boy to us and serve as an extension of the boy’s personality. I will admit I walked a rather fine line between “cute” and “catechisis” where the illustrations are concerned.

Yet it is the words that serve the book well and make it worthy of a book collection. Consider the following excerpt:

“The types and shadows from of old
were imaged in the Lamb foretold.
When Jesus died upon the cross,
His death, our gain, was Satan’s loss.”

There is heavy theology packed with economy into that verse and the rest of the pages, making “God Loves Me Such That He Would Give” not only fun to read, but well worth the time invested. Hopefully, my efforts in illustrating serve to underscore both. I know parents will be pleased.

And yes, I know Dad would be proud.

"God Loves Me Such That He Would Give" is available in hard and soft cover from Mize Family Books, Ad Crucem, and Amazon.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Not Simply for Show

Copyright © Edward Riojas
“Jesus has blessed His church with pastors who [adapt our sensibilities to Christ] in preaching, but it's better for our church when He also gives us authors, artists, architects, and hymn writers who can do it through their crafts.”

Those words were recently written to me by a Lutheran pastor. It may seem a simple thing, but saying them out loud is important and the sentiments cannot be stressed enough.

There are folks in Christendom, however, who challenge those thoughts. I’m still learning my lesson when it comes to avoiding the elephant-sized rabbit hole of differing opinions on sacred art. Hopefully, I’ll never learn.

My arguement always backtracks to the most basic of ideas. Some folks like to worship in Spirit with no external stimuli. Some folks like to keep things simple. Some folks are offended by Catholic images and trappings. Some folks are petrified of having graven images. Fine.

Besides trying to live in an imaginary world, those same folks must also face reality: Their houses are usually nice; Their houses typically contain photos of family members, some of which are long gone; Their houses contain other fine things meant for the eyes.

So why insist that The Lord’s house look like an entertainment venue or a Zen temple or a pole barn?

It is maddening that we think so much of the Lord that we avoid picturing His Divine work on our behalf. Heaven forbid that we remind ourselves what Christ has done for us, because that would be heresy. Instead, we are more apt to invest in window stickers that show our family is comprised of six stick-figures, two cats, and a dog; we are more apt to wave a pennant displaying whatever sorry sports team we follow.

"Parables of the Vineyard." Edward Riojas. 2017.
(Collection of the artist)

If folks are so terribly afraid of graven images, then perhaps every visual should be trashed. That includes profile pictures, traffic signs, faceless Amish dolls, family photos, and the cameras that produce the same. And don’t EVEN think about purple giraffes. I realize that the graven image-thing was behind a lot of bickering and bloodshed when the Eastern and Western churches butted heads, but the point of graven images was aimed at other non-existent gods that sucked the salvation out of stupid people.

But now we preach Christ crucified, and we do it with every fiber of our being and in every vocation, whether it is visible in the sanctuary or hidden in the home. Mothers proclaim the love of Christ when they change dirty diapers, and artists do the same when producing images of the crucified Christ. Mothers can’t help it, and neither can we.
"Precious in the Sight of The Lord." Edward Riojas. 2016.
(Collection of the artist)

Which brings us to the Sola Art Exhibition currently showing at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In what is now a biennial event, the modest show exhibits the talents of living, breathing artists working within the Lutheran sphere.

Two originals of mine, “Parables of the Vineyard” and “Precious in the Sight of The Lord,” along with the work of several other artists, will be on view in the seminary library through January, 2018.

Sacred art, however, is not simply for show. Neither is it something we worship. At its best, sacred art points to Holy Scripture and, by extension, The Word in the Person of Christ and His salvific work on our behalf.


Both original paintings are for sale, as are giclee prints of the same. For more information, e-mail the artist at

Friday, October 27, 2017

Luther: For All the Saints

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In many Lutheran congregations, Church festivals are celebrated on the Sunday after the actual date. Because we don’t want to minimize the importance of the Lutheran Reformation, the festival of All Saints is most often kept separate from the festival of the Reformation, even though they are but a day apart.
“Martin Luther on His Deathbed”
Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder.
1546. (Lower Saxony State Museum,
Hannover, Germany)

At the risk of appearing as a morbid curmudgeon while the rest of the Lutheran church is celebrating 500 years of the Reformation, the death of Martin Luther is something worth considering.

The fact that he was not burned at the stake as were his reformist predecessors is noteworthy in itself. Luther avoided the death of a labeled heretic, even when he constantly spoke his mind in the presence of nobility and clergy alike; even when he wrote against errors in the Roman Catholic church; even when he wanted to give the common folk what was denied them and protect them from church-endorsed heretical practises. It is easy for us to thump our chests and declare that truth always triumphs – we have 500 years of insulation between us and the reality of Luther’s day. Luther’s “peaceful death,” therefore, is important.

Regional folklore had a tight hold on the people of Luther’s day, and superstitions were sometimes interwoven in the already-questionable teachings of Roman Catholicism. Hence, the church was quick to invent accounts of the reformer’s death to suit their agenda. To us it may seem a trite matter, but Luther’s opponents did not want him to have a “peaceful death.” Doing so would force the papacy to recognize that Luther was indeed in heaven, and that, in turn, would topple massive chunks of their theology. Instead, they wished he died either suddenly or in his sleep – both would bolster convictions that he died an evil death and therefore was of the devil. Such were the superstitions of the day. Ill rumors were spread immediately after his death that ranged from shrieks in the death chamber to demons fluttering about Luther’s room to Luther’s empty grave emitting a sulfurous odor. To preempt such nonsense, the death chamber was filled with many witnesses who recorded a far different event.
“Luther’s letztes Bekenntnis”
(Luther’s last Confession)
William Pape. 1905.
(Luther’s Death House Museum,
Eisleben, Germany)

Ever the reformer, even in death, Luther did not exchange his clothes for a monk’s frock, as would have been acceptable – especially to those who expected him to repent of his teachings and return at the last to Roman Catholicism. Luther did not recant any of his beliefs. Neither did he hold a rosary, as was customary.

In his final moments, Luther was asked,"Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?"

He simply replied, “Yes.”

Luther’s resolute confession, along with his empty hands, could arguably be one of his greatest sermons.

We rejoice that Luther died thus, we rejoice for all the saints who have gone before us with the sign of the Cross, and we rejoice that Jesus Christ defeated death by His own death and resurrection so that we may be added to His train.

May The Lord keep us ever in the palm of His hand, and bring us to that day when we, too, may endure a “peaceful death.”

Friday, October 20, 2017

“Christ Carrying the Cross:” A lesson

"Christ Carrying the Cross"
Hieronymus Bosch, or a follower of Bosch. 1510–1535.
(Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, Belgium)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Hieronymus Bosch always seemed a tad “off.” My guess is that his elementary school report card often carried the comment, “Runs with scissors.” He was the kid who was blessed with imagination disproportionate to his ability to filter anything passing through his noggin. If there is one quintessential Bosch piece, it must be his “Garden of Earthly Delights.” Most folks are at least vaguely familiar with the painting, most adolescent boys laugh at the artist’s propensity for putting things “where the sun doesn’t shine,” and most everyone assumes Bosch often got confused over which mushrooms were actually edible.

The quirky artist had lasting influence, however, and there is a possibility that at least one artist walked a very similar path. If this is so, then Bosch bequeathed not only his artistic approach, but also his mushroom bisque recipe to the unnamed follower who painted “Christ Carrying the Cross.” The debate over who painted the original – whether a follower or Bosch himself – is relatively recent, but we all know the thing was painted by an odd duck.

“Christ Carrying the Cross” simply bothers us.

There is a bit of logic behind the cast of uncomely characters, but it doesn’t much help in our appreciation, or lack thereof, of the piece. In the upper right, a death-like man rolls his eyes back, as if to heaven. He is the repentant thief, who is read the riot act by a snaggletoothed monk.

The thief’s unrepentant counterpart is in the lower right, who growls defiantly at his accusers – each of which is uglier, in turn.

At lower left is St. Veronica, who apparently is so enthralled by the holy shroud that she misses the reality of the Lord behind her. In that respect, her singular beauty is highly suspect.

In fact, there is so much ugliness in the masterpiece that the quiet visage of Jesus Christ sticks out like a sore thumb, and the mere existence of the painting challenges the viewer’s idea of beauty in art. The artist uses a different brand of ugliness that even Italian Renaissance master da Vinci couldn’t – or wouldn’t – pull off in his own drawings. The faces smack of something drawn on the edge of a boring Math book. They are caricatures of humanity. Their piercings might shock even the most radical Goth of today. Their warts and dental hygiene are questionable. The crowd is simply hideous, and it bothers us.

When pondering “Christ Carrying the Cross,” Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13, somehow came to mind. ‘The love chapter’ is one of the most-used – and arguably one of the most inappropriate – sections of Scripture read during wedding ceremonies.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

One can easily imagine the bride batting her eyelashes under a veil while the passage is read at the altar, and we can see the groom stealing sideways glances with fawn eyes. If, however, St. Paul‘s words are used as a shopping list of what should be expected in this life, let alone a marital life, then all of us would realize how bankrupt we are when it’s time to “check out.” “Christ Carrying the Cross” comes back to haunt us with its reality, we find ourselves in that painting, and it isn’t pretty.

But Paul’s words are not a shopping list for us; Paul’s words aren’t Law. They are Gospel.

If 1 John 4:8 is correct – and it most certainly is – then it is proper, at least for the purpose of illustration, to insert “Christ” where Paul uses the word “love” in his letter to the Corinthians.

This is where immense beauty returns to “Christ Carrying the Cross.” In spite of the sheer weight of ugliness, Love outshines every stroke of hideousness that we could ever bring to the tableau, and indeed have brought to the cross.

In this, we rejoice that Christ bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Friday, October 13, 2017

About That Cross

Copyright © Edward Riojas

A cross is a cross is a cross, until one starts digging into its history. What originally was a symbol of a gruesome Roman death eventually became something so diverse in design that it spilled over into the secular realm. The earliest forms of crosses – tau, anchor, and Latin varieties – were soon joined by Greek and Orthodox versions. Variety, of course, is the spice of life, even in a symbol of death. Renaissance coats-of-arms were emblazoned with enough variations that heraldic words were employed to describe them. Terms like “fitchy” and “pattée” and “cercelée” were employed to define the different forms. Leave it to the French to have a different word for everything.
Horse chamfron engraved
with the Smalcaldic motto

One variation that you might notice more recently is a Greek version (of four equal “arms”) with the letters V,D,M, and A in each of the angles. This particular cross is distinctly Lutheran in origin. Martin Luther, however, probably had little, if anything, to do with its inception. Perhaps he had other fish to fry.

The VDMA cross first appeared in the court of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony – also known as Frederick the Wise – who had it emblazoned on the sleaves of his court officials and servants. Luther most certainly saw the cross, because Frederick the Wise was one of the Reformer’s staunchest allies.

The device became a sort of informal banner around which the Smalcaldic League rallied. A loose confederation of German princes with the common enemy of papal intervention, the group took its name from the town of Schmalkalden. Originally, the group’s emphasis was theologically-based, but later it became militaristic, and the league antagonized the Holy Roman Emperor and his plan to thwart Lutheranism.
Cross designed by the author.
Copyright © Ecclesiastical Sewing

The League’s cross became emblazoned on armor, weaponry and foot soldiers’ tunics. Eventually, the expanded version of those abbreviated letters went beyond swords of war and horses’ chamfrons and onto coins and architectural details – some of which are still visible today.

The VDMA cross still has staying power. Its military connection has faded into history, but the theological significance is perhaps greater than ever. In this 500th year of the Reformation, we can still claim the motto, “Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum,” as our own. In a world in which the Church is still assaulted by powers of earth and hell, and in which lives of the Faithful are spent like so much grass, we yet join in proclaiming Peter’s inspired words, “The Word of the Lord Endures Forever.”

Friday, October 6, 2017

ArtPrize 2017: The Cause Effect

Detail of martyr names and rape victim names from the floor in front of "Ambrei as Potamiaena."

Copyright © Edward Riojas

ArtPrize 2017 is almost over, but there is plenty of reason to dwell on at least one aspect of the event – what happens when causes are taken up by artists. In a world where “Art for art’s sake” was once a catchword, it sometimes comes as a slight annoyance when artists shout their art atop a soapbox.

There are causes seemingly everywhere in the ArtPrize landscape. Topics ranging from equality to environmental responsibility to unjustified violence always pop up, and this year’s entries were no exception.

But there is a range of inherent hazards in the pursuit of awareness and causes and agendas.

Take the piece that hung next to mine during the event. The massive conglomeration of Chihuly-like plastic bottle florals might bring awareness to the problem of litter, but one wonders how long it will be before the thing itself heads to the dump instead of the closest recycling station; viewers stood in awe of the artist’s ability to deftly turn 200 lbs. of trash ... into 200 lbs. of trash.

Consider, too, the piece that hung on the other side of my piece. The 8 by 18-feet drawing brought to light issues dealing with water quality and availability. But it was done on paper – produced by mills which historically have been among the worst polluters of water.

In similar manner, a humongous image that floated in the Grand River forced us to think of native Americans being forced to contend with oil production in the Dakotas. But the message became mixed when the artist had the image printed on a plasticized material – an oil byproduct. Even the artist admitted the incongruity, leaving the viewer more puzzled.

My own piece, however, contained its own kind of hazard – a heartfelt one for which I was not wholly prepared. “Ambrei as Potamiaena” was essentially about Christian martyrdom, and the reality of clinging to Faith in an evil world. The names of more than 2,000 martyrs through history and across the globe bled down the frame and onto the floor. Because St. Potamiaena eventually became a patron saint of rape victims, I also allowed those who “shared in her suffering” to put their names in a slotted box so I could add them to the mix.

To my knowledge, I have no connections to rape victims, so the first name I found on a folded piece of paper was a jolt. The degree of separation between my cushy world and reality grossly diminished.

Rarely would anyone put a name in the box when the crowds thronged, but piles of names would await me in the quiet mornings, pointing to the lingering stigma of being a victim.

Visitors who stopped and read my artist statement were thankful. Some had tears. Some were young. Some were old. One woman chatted with me at length, thankful that I, a man, was addressing the issue. She was a rape victim and a published author on the subject.

Visitors stopped in silence, as if at a shrine. I tried to keep a noble face all the while – with one notable exception that brought me to my knees and produced tears.

Visitors occasionally asked if they might put in a sister’s name or a daughter’s name or a friends’ name, and I always allowed them. One smiling mother asked if she might put her daughter’s name in, so out of habit I said, “Yes.” She then turned to her daughter – not more than 9- or 10-years-old – and asked, “Honey, would you like to put your name in?” The girl smiled, then carefully spelled out her own name with big, loopy letters, and put it in the box.

Friday, September 22, 2017

A Profound Thread in Sacred Art

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Being a commissioned, sacred artist, I am sometimes privy to things otherwise hidden. No, I’m not talking about things mystical, or of private revelations, or voices. I am talking about the back stories of commissions – things sometimes intentionally covered, left undisclosed, or otherwise minimized.

I realize I am sounding mysterious and nebulous, but I am bound to uphold anonymity where it is requested. What I CAN tell the reader is that there is a profound thread that runs through those back stories – one that only becomes visible with experience. For lack of better words, it is a bicolored thread of brokenness and Hope so entwined that it defies unravelling.

The rare commissions are ones that are solely born out of generosity. More often, works of art come to life by the memory of a life cut short, through some deep hurt, or the soiled veil covering this side of heaven. Sometimes, those imperfections are memorialized in the piece itself.

Putting aside images of the crucified and risen Christ, there is one theme that is requested most often – the procession of saints. This is usually, but not always, included in the adoration of The Lamb.

As is typical of our skewed view of classical artwork, we often take these processions of saints the wrong way. Whether because of the richness of dress in which they were portrayed or in the masterful manner in which they were painted, we see them as a crowd of churchly movers and shakers; men and women of high standing; noble lords and ladies of whom we may only deign to aspire. This is not so.

As was depicted in former days is the same now – these are random samplings of whitewashed nobility; the broken; the hurting; those desirous and eager for the return of our Faithful Redeemer. In these processions, we see ourselves and others who share our burdens and faults and sinfulness. We see ourselves in the throng of those whose Hope echoes the desperate question of the disciple, “Lord, to whom shall we go?!”

In every case the Death and Resurrection of our Lord outshines these shadows of multifaceted brokenness with a singular Hope. Without such there would be no point in me completing such commissions. And there would be little to note in the example of a mural realized after the death of its visionary, the example of a Down Syndrome child weekly pondering an image of Jesus surrounded by children, the example of the blind funding an image of the resurrected Christ.

Friday, September 15, 2017

2017 ArtPrize Piece: “Ambrei as Potamiaena”

Detail of "Ambrei as Potamiaena." Edward Riojas. 2017.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

There are promises, and then there are promises. Crossing one’s heart does not compare with, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” Neither does a child’s “pinky promise” hold a candle to an adult’s “’till death us do part” variety.

But there is another promise of even greater consequence. Some of us vowed “ suffer all, even death...” Perhaps those words were glibly said as young pre-teens. Perhaps you were an adult when you made that promise.

“P: Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?

R: I do, by the grace of God”

That question and its answer are part of the rite of Confirmation in the Lutheran Church. In spite of the serious tone of that promise, we rarely think the “even death” part will ever come. It’s hard to muster the uglier parts of the imagination while wearing white, smiling at flashing cameras, and knowing there will be cake afterward.

But ugly happens, and it has happened, non-stop, throughout history. Hence, the sober truth of my ArtPrize entry, “Ambrei as Potamiaena.”

Potamiaena was the antithesis of ugly. Little is known of the young woman, but the early Church historian, Eusebius, tells us she was extremely beautiful. Even more beautifully, she was a Christian. But that was circa 200 A.+D. in Alexandria, and Septimius Severus was inciting persecution against Christians. Potamiaena’s double portion of beauty made her a mark, and all manner of ugly torture was meted out to her. Still, she would not deny the Faith – neither under horrible torture, nor at her gruesome end as a Christian martyr.

As Church heroes go, she is way, way down on the list. To my knowledge, there is no icon of her. Potamiaena doesn’t show up in sacred art. Aside from her becoming a patron saint of rape victims, her name is fairly obscure within the Church.

Chances are that Matthew Ayariga doesn’t show up on your list, either. Neither does Perpetua Hong Kimju. Even the name, Rachel Scott, is probably beginning to fade from memory. These names, however, and the rest of a modest list of martyrs that will cascade down the painting’s frame and bleed onto the floor, are written in the palm of the Lord’s hand – and He remembers them. The names come from different continents and cultures. The list crosses lines of gender and age and notoriety. They are from antiquity and from recent history.
"Ambrei as Potamiaena,"
during final fitting of painting
with frame and base.

In the painting, the figure portraying Potamiaena holds a palm branch – an age-old symbol of martyrdom. Likewise, a garment of white also identifies her as a martyr. Fifteen square yards of fabric were used to wrap the model in a hooded toga – ignoring Potamiaena's soiled, short life, and pointing to a greater, everlasting one. Perhaps most significantly, her feet and palm frond do not touch the ground.

When I was taking photos of the model, Ambrei, for the painting, I remember pausing to ask her if she was smiling. I did not, after all, think a smile appropriate for the subject of martyrdom. Ambrei assured me she was not smiling. I shot photos of other poses, including the much-used noble attitude of looking upward to the light, but I kept coming back to the original pose.

The notion that this young woman does not avert her gaze, but matter-of-factly addresses the viewer with innocence and honesty, took hold and gave direction to the painting. Ambrei’s gaze drills into the viewer. In photographic parlance, she “ate the camera.”

I doubt that Potamiaena ever made the same promise that some of us made – she simply let her "Yes" be "Yes," and her "No" be "No." Her words – whatever they were – carried no less honor and yielded the highest sacrifice.

With Ambrei portraying Potamiaena, it is almost as if she is asking the question of us; as does the noble army of martyrs; as does Christ Himself: “Do you intend to continue steadfast...?”

It is only by the Grace of God that one can respond, “I do.”


"Ambrei as Potamiaena" will be hosted during ArtPrize by DeVos Place Convention Center, 303 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids, Mich. The piece is located at the south end of the building. ArtPrize begins Sept. 20, and runs through Oct. 8.

Friday, September 8, 2017

ArtPrize From Both Sides of the Brain

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I realize that not everyone who visits this blog can visit ArtPrize. The art competition that grew up in my backyard is quite unlike any other – whether in the U.S. or any other part of the world. Being a relative newcomer to the global art scene, ArtPrize suffers from growing pains, but already this thing is a giant.

Once upon a time, I created graphics for a local newspaper group, and ArtPrize was my baby. There were times when my interpretations of raw data gave me insights into the event that even ArtPrize staff didn't have. What follows is a brief visual exploration of ArtPrize, ala Riojas style, that gives a hint at the scope of what is still an unknown event to many Americans. For a deeper explanation of ArtPrize, you can read a post from the Art Curmudgeon archives.

Numbers can be boring to artists, so I've superimposed Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night" over the history of artist/venue participation to give you a better impression. (See what I did there?)

The slightly-convoluted ArtPrize prize purse evolved when elitists complained about trends in the original public vote, so the event is now bi-polar, with elitist jurors carrying as much weight as the pedestrian public. Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" questions both sides and their respective ideas of "fine" art.

The size of the ArtPrize purse means nothing unless it is compared with other globally-respected art prizes. How appropriate that Gilbert Stuart's unfinished "George Washington" (yes, the one used on U.S. currency) supports the data.

The original boundaries held us captive with more than enough art. Then special interests and deep pockets got in the way. The politics of art can be worse than, um, politics.

Source for all graphics: and The Art Curmudgeon research.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Archaeology of an Altarpiece

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It wasn’t exactly a Velociraptor tooth, but I knew I was on to something.

I recently deconstructed an old altarpiece and, in doing so, reconstructed a bit of history. It began months ago, when I agreed to take a dusty, old altarpiece and its companion Baptismal font from a parsonage basement, thus saving the sanctuary “furniture” from certain demise in a county landfill. In exchange, I also agreed to clean and reframe the central painting, and give it back to the church. While not very attractive to me, the painting of a Resurrected Christ held enough historical significance for the congregation to warrant preservation.
Back of the altarpiece's central section.

Thus I began to ponder the filthy altarpiece, and how best to take it apart. Feel free to imagine me with pick and shovel, dental tools, and a horsehair brush. Okay, so I had a pry bar and a hammer.

I first looked at the back – the mostly-likely entry point for the Gothic-arched canvas. A horrible make-over job, probably of 1920s or ‘30’s vintage, left its scars. I mean, who would want to brush over stained wood with cream-colored paint? Is wasn’t a very careful job, either. Paint dripped off the Gothic details and down the inaccessible back. A large wooden panel covered most of the back, but, curiously, two different sets of nails weren’t enough to keep it against the frame – something held the panel away so that the nail shafts were visible.

Things became more clear when I started prying the large panel away. It was nicely “glued-up” lumber, and its hidden surface, facing the back of the painting, was stained and varnished. My original hunch that the painting was not original proved true. The large panel holding the painting in place was actually intended to be visible within the Gothic frame. A few small holes hinted that a small crucifix was probably mounted centrally on the panel.
With the back panel off and canvas exposed.

There was also an odd light fixture just above the peak of the arched opening. It was old enough, but it certainly wasn’t original. Frames of this style easily date to the mid- to late-1800s, and electricity was a novelty, at best.

The painting was now accessible with the panel off, but it was in a sorry state. To begin, the canvas was poorly stretched. Its stretcher frame was less than minimal – even when accommodating a Gothic arch. Its construction had been compromised and it no longer even stretched the canvas. It was a wonder the canvas itself was intact.

The stretching job indicated that it was probably done by an artist of middling abilities and less notoriety. Copper nails were not used, and the nails that were used were set at random intervals. The corners were not tidy at all. If the artist himself didn’t treat his work with dignity, neither did time.
Poor condition of the stretched canvas.

The painting surface was covered by countless years of dust and all manner of insect droppings and who knows what else. I know enough about art conservation that important jobs should be left to professional restorers, but I also knew the painting was no Rembrandt. Professional restorers use a combination of restraint, voodoo-like chemistry, patience, and even their own saliva to accomplish things. I opted, instead, on a simple, but decisive approach.

First, I used a clean, soft brush to repeatedly rid the surface of the obvious dust and dirt. I vacuumed the back of the canvas. (Restorers, feel free to pull out your hair.) Then I carefully used purified water and a brush on small areas to clean the oil painting bit deeper. I was sure to wipe any excess water so that it dried quickly.

There came another “Aha!” moment when I addressed the insect droppings. Prodding with a very small chisel revealed that, apparently, the church at that time could not afford a candle snuffer. What I originally thought were droppings were, based on the location and spatter pattern, candle wax. Smoke from candles can be bad enough for sanctuary artwork, but over-zealous blowing of candles does not bode well for artwork just inches away.
Candle wax, paint line, and date

I had been trying to date the altarpiece at every turn and found only carpenter’s markings – that is, until I removed the painting. Not-so-careful painters left a line of cream-colored paint around the edge of the canvas. Paint even partially obscured the signature of the artist, M. Madsen. When the canvas was pulled out of the frame, however, what was hidden by the frame edge came to light – below the artist’s signature was the date, 1908.

A simple timeline can be constructed from my little exercise of removing a sacred painting from its frame. The altarpiece was originally a darkly-stained, wooden affair with Gothic details. A simple cross hung on its large, central panel. That was in the late 1800s. Some time shortly after the turn of the century, Madsen was asked to create a painting of the Resurrection to replace the crucifix and panel. Electricity was available, so a light was added to illuminate the painting. New tastes in decor later dictated the altarpiece be lightened up, and it was given a makeover with cream and gold paint.
In the 1950s, a much nicer altarpiece was purchased and installed in the church, and the old altarpiece was removed to the parsonage basement. It stayed there for 60 years or more.

The upgrading and removal of such things may seem of little consequence. After so many years few people remember. But one elderly woman did. As the altarpiece was being loaded in a rental trailer to make the trip to my house, she told the pastor that she and her husband were the last couple to be married in front of the image of the Risen Christ. For that simple reason alone, the painting is going back to its proper home.