Friday, January 27, 2017

Star Gazing

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Christmas tree has been chucked outside weeks ago. The star tree-topper has been packed in its box and shoved under the stairs, and the Church calendar says it’s already well into Epiphany. But perhaps we should take one last look at the star.

Christmas cards and carols usually get a little hasty when it comes to the Natal star and the characters surrounding its appearance. Sometimes they just get it wrong. Scripture doesn’t say there were three magi, but we get hung up on the number and even give the wise guys nifty names like and Melchior and Valspar and Curly.

Scripture, however, does indeed mention a star as drawing Gentile magi to the Light of the world.

The star has been used in Christian symbolism for ages. In fact, the star has been used in so many forms and in so many applications – sacred, secular, and pagan – that it’s probably a good idea to refresh ourselves with a few of its uses.

Living in a country whose flag is emblazoned with 50 stars is an easy reminder that the five-pointed star is largely used by global, secular powers. For the simple reason of separating sacred from the secular, it’s sometimes a good idea to avoid the five-pointed star, even though Christendom is deeply saturated with the variation.

Another reason to avoid that particular star is that offense is occasionally taken by fringe groups who equate any five-pointed star with the pentagram and its association with devil worship. The pentagram, however, is always shown inverted, and is usually depicted with a traced outline and additional satanic symbols.

Six-pointed stars are another type with equally-confusing variants. The knee-jerk reaction is to equate any six-pointed star with the Jews or the Israeli state. If the star is a solid shape, however, it is known as the Creator’s Star. The same shape that is traced with interlocking outlines is what adorns the Israeli flag and has been an ancient identifier of the Jews as a people. To confuse things, both variations show up on rare occasions in Christian symbolism.

The star also shows up in other permutations in Christendom, sporting as many points – four, seven, nine, twelve, etc. – as is needed to visually stress a doctrinal, uh, point.

The eight-pointed star is arguably one of the best forms, especially when considering Epiphany. If you’re counting, the number eight is associated with regeneration, resurrection, Holy Baptism, and heaven itself. By extending the bottom point of the star – giving it “A tail as big as a kite” [my sincere apologies] – it takes on a Latin cruciform shape. Not only so, but the diagonal rays become reminiscent of a specific cross – the Resurrection Cross. Hence, this type of star underscores Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection in a single symbol.

The next time you visit a church sanctuary, look up. It has been a loose tradition throughout the ages to paint stars on nave ceilings. Sometimes the stars are executed in gold leaf. Sometimes the ceiling is painted blue – perhaps even garishly so. This isn’t to give the impression of worshipping al fresco, but instead is a reference to the angels or pastors, both bearers of the Light of Heaven through the Gospel.

Grace Episcopal Church, Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., undergoes restoration of a recently-uncovered ceiling covered with hundreds of eight-pointed stars. (Photo courtesy of The New York Times)

Friday, January 20, 2017

Going on a Date

Copyright © Edward Riojas

We have Dionysius Exiguus to thank, but we’ll get to that later.
“Arnolfini Portrait” detail.
Jan van Eyck. 1434.
(National Gallery, London)

Dating a piece of art can be a pain. There is no guarantee any given piece will be given a date by its creator. Artists will usually take the credit – or blame, as warrants the case –  and sign their name, but artists are less likely to assign a year to something they’ve created. Without that date, it becomes a nightmare for others to place pieces in chronological order or put them in context with the artist’s life. Artists, of course, can either follow normal dating conventions or their own whims, making things even more interesting.

Jan van Eyck was the John Hancock of the art world. Shoppers probably wasted half the day waiting for van Eyck to write a check in the twelve-items-or-less lane. For at least one of his pieces, the artist inserted a couple of extra words next to his signature, because, well, he was already over the top.
Albrecht Dürer. 1515.
(State Museum of Berlin)

For the well-known “Arnolfini Portrait,” van Eyck used a Latin phrase which, when translated, reads “Johannes de Eyck was here 1434.” The painting is surrounded by so much symbolism, speculation, and study that we forgive van Eyck for his flamboyant signature and cavalier attitude toward the date.

Albrecht Dürer clearly dated his “Rhinocerus,” and even gave a name to the strange beast for the benefit of viewers. But don’t get confused by the “AD” in the engraving – those are only the artist’s initials.

Starting in the sixth century, a very different “A.D.” began appearing in various forms, usually spelled out as “Anno Domini” instead of the modern abbreviation. Translated from the original Latin, the phrase means “In the year of our Lord.” Occasionally it was elaborated as “Anno Domini nostri Iesu Christi” – "In the year of Our Lord Jesus Christ."
“Lorenzaccio” Poster.
Alphonse Mucha. 1896.

Alphonse Mucha used the sixth century convention in dating an 1896 poster design for Sarah Bernhardt’s performance in “Lorenzaccio.” The Art Nouveau style allowed for the Latin phrase, complete with a Roman numeral year, although one might argue that its use as a design element trumped any sacred connection.

My latest painting, “The Parables of the Vineyard,” uses the same convention, with a couple of additions: A cross is placed between the “Anno” and “Domini” to traditionally indicate who the “Lord” is, and two dates, 500 years apart, are included. The first date is the year of the Reformation, 1517, and the second is 2017.

Nearly 1,500 years ago, a Scythian monk standardized our historical numbering of years by counting the years from Christ’s birth. Thanks to Dionysius Exiguus – Dionysius the Humble – The A.D. dating system is still used today, and dates following his formal convention can be found on cornerstones, monuments, and the occasional art piece.  It is fitting that we give a nod to his humble efforts and precisely date the fruit of his labor – in the year of our Lord, 525.
"The Parables of the Vineyard" detail.
Edward Riojas. 2017. (Collection of the artist)

Friday, January 13, 2017

In Cranach’s Shoes

Copyright © Edward Riojas

They are, indeed, very large shoes to fill. Like any child who aspires to be a parent, it was inevitable that I would one day step into those artistic shoes and shuffle about, pretending to be the Northern Renaissance master himself.

Long ago, I planned to create a series of portraits to commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. The beginnings of that series were recently unveiled. I plan on adding a portrait or two as my schedule permits or as a change of scene necessitates, but for now I have Martin and Katharine to show for my efforts. Martin clearly has his mind on loftier things. Katie, on the other hand, is keeping a close eye on me.
“Katharina von Bora Luther”
Edward Riojas. 2017.

Lucas Cranach the Elder gave a face to the Reformation. Nearly every person closely associated with the Lutheran movement had their likeness painted by Cranach. Copies were made in Cranach’s workshop, and later were created by his sons, Lucas Cranach the Younger and – to a much lesser extent – Hans Cranach. The copies continued to be churned out decades after the elder artist died. One only need to peruse a catalog of Cranach’s work contained in to see the volume produced by his studio.

The Elder Cranach was a court painter to the Electors of Saxony, but was allowed the freedom to paint things apart from the demands of the court. Luther became a protectorate of the Electors, and it was natural to have portraits made of the independent-minded Reformer. Cranach became a friend of Luther, giving the artist exposure to those sympathetic to the growing movement.

It is clear, by natural observation if not by scholarly study, how Cranach’s workshop managed to produce so many likenesses of Luther and his followers. There are a few likenesses which show keen observation and care in execution – especially in those details which normally are of little consequence. Hands, for example, can belie the work of a master against that of an apprentice. There are other examples of work attributed to Cranach’s workshop, however, which may have a well-rendered face, but poorly wrought hands, and clothing rendered with even less skill. It is likely that the least talented in the workshop blocked in simple lines of clothing, copying earlier work. Those artists with marginal skill would add generic hands, ignoring individuality – and often anatomy – in the process. Only artists with the greatest skill would reproduce faces from earlier works and make sure important details were rendered correctly.
“Martin Luther”
Edward Riojas. 2017.

Thus, I stepped into the imaginary space of time and set to work on my own copies, making sure those copies were not forgeries of the originals, but perhaps pieces from the workshop that had become lost to time. For the benefit of our time and space, I wanted to include a quote from each “sitter” in English.

While we know that Katharine had great importance and bearing, there is very little of her words left to us. I used the one quote that does appear over and again, “I will cling to Christ like a burr to a cloak.” Her economy of words became the formula that I sought for each personality.

Out of volumes one could use in finding a quote from Luther, I wanted one that kept clear of necessarily-long excerpts on doctrine. I ignored the oft-used “Here I stand.” Instead, I used part of a quote that hinted at a unique brand of humility amid the Reformer’s far-reaching influence. Even in death, it rings as true for Luther as it does for us, “I have held many things in my hands and have lost them all, but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”

The original paintings and giclee prints of the originals are for sale. To inquire or order, please e-mail the artist at

“Martin Luther” original painting, 18” x 24” with frame (not shown): $2,500
“Katharine von Bora Luther” original painting, 18” x 24” with frame (not shown): $2,500

Signed giclee prints of each, unframed and unmatted:
12” x 16” / $75
18” x 24” / $120

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like a Vineyard

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It swirled around in my head for a good while until I found reason to coax the thing out. The idea seemed worth exploring; the image worth fleshing out and sharing. With the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Church looming this year, there is now even more reason to unveil this peek into the Kingdom of Heaven.

I envisioned this as a piece that might have originated from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, but clearly didn’t. I wanted a painting that used visual devices from the Northern Renaissance, but one that also contained unique ideas. I saw a piece that might be catechetical; perhaps even exegetical; one that would draw the viewer into its strange, confessional detail instead of gilding over religious fluff.

Cranach did, indeed, create a painting on the subject of the vineyard, but it relied on a rather propagandist view of Roman Catholics undoing the work of Lutherans. I chose to use a similar formula of including movers and shakers within the Lutheran Church, but ignored the Roman ingredient found in Cranach’s piece.

The result is, I think, an odd, little piece. It is also arguably one of my most important. It is called “The Parables of the Vineyard,” for it meshes several parables into one.
“The Parables of the Vineyard”
Copyright © Edward Riojas. 2017.This image may not be reproduced for any reason
without the permission of the artist.

One may begin exploring the painting in the upper left, where a floating banner declares, “There was a Master of a house who planted a vineyard.” The passage, from Matthew 21, is more commonly known as the Parable of the Tenants. In the parable, the Master puts a hedge around the vineyard. I saw this as the Ten Commandments that not only keep us within the Kingdom, but also protect us from what is without.

The Master also built a tower. To my knowledge, no artist has ever depicted this as a church tower. I took the opportunity to use All Saints’ Church – also known as Schlosskirche or the Castle Church of Wittenberg – as the tower.

Perhaps an argument for not using a church steeple as the tower is the condemnation by the vineyard‘s Master and His giving the vineyard to others, but one must remember that the church building – though new in Luther’s day and later totally destroyed – was originally a Roman Catholic façade and not Lutheran property. It is also a reminder to us that we, too, could easily forfeit our heavenly treasure through denial of The Word in all its truth and clarity. Luther's words, in German, give clout to the church tower, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

In the same parable, the Master sends servants to gather fruit. One is beaten; another killed. Christ indicates in Matthew 5:12 that this was the fate of the prophets and could be ours, too. On the left, under the blazing sun, a prophet of old holds a scroll of The Word and is beaten. On the right, under a conspicuous crescent moon, one of the faithful is martyred at the edge of a scimitar. I don’t think I could be more visually-pointed. Chaff burns outside the vineyard, and flames lick at the heals of the wicked.

Outside of the vineyard, too, the Savior hangs on a cursed tree, but its base crushes death and Satan. Blood and Water issue from the side of the Savior and into the vineyard. His blood pours into a winepress that the Master dug, which, in turn, fills a Chalice. Water from the Lord’s side pours into an eight-sided well, into which a tomb has been dug. The tomb was used, but is now empty.

Christ is the vine and we are the branches [John 15:5], and the faithful follow the Lord’s example by working in the vineyard. Here Christ is pruning vines [John 15:2]; there He is grafting in new plants [Romans 11]; yet again He is outside urging more workers into the vineyard [Matthew 20]. This narrative view was a common device in sacred art when capturing a single moment in time would not suffice.

As was often the case of Renaissance sacred art, some of the workers may be recognizable. Martin Luther works beside LCMS President, Rev. Dr. Harrison. Outside, Luther, Katharina von Bora Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and J.S. Bach are summoned by Christ and the Kingdom’s work. Lastly and least of all, I tag along.

The gate to which we head is decidedly small. I mistakenly drew it that way, but left it, believing that Someone else was guiding my hand. Christ is the narrow gate; He is the Alpha and Omega; He is the capstone; He is the cornerstone. Christ is all.

This vision of the Kingdom is appropriate for such an anniversary. It reminds us of the work that has been handed to us by the Master of the House – work that not only needs to be done during this landmark year, but every year henceforth.

The original painting and giclée prints of the original are for sale. To inquire or order, please e-mail the artist at

“The Parables of the Vineyard” original painting, 46.5” x 31.5” with frame. $10,000

“The Parables of the Vineyard” signed giclée prints, unframed and unmatted:
18” x 12.25” / $80
24” x 16.5” / $110
36” x 25” / $180
40” x 27.5” / $210

Friday, January 6, 2017

Contemplations on the Year

“Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”
~ Malachi 3:10b

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I was originally going to do the obvious and plow through a complete list of pieces on which I’ve worked during the past year. Exhaustive lists like that, however, are exhausting. If such a compiliation doesn't bore you to death, it most certainly would have made me comatose. Besides, I don’t have the time to gather all that stuff.

2016 was certainly different from all previous years. I suppose I could have told you that I deftly pulled myself up by my bootstraps after getting fired from my job at The Grand Rapids Press/MLive Media Group, but that would have been mostly a lie.

I was a good boy and followed through with the company-sponsored transition training. I became a LinkedIn expert, whatever that is. I beefed up my resume and portfolio so that it impressed even me. I sent out self-promotional information to dozens of local firms, flexing my artistic and intelectual bicepts in the process. If, however, anyone asked me how many bites I got from all that effort, I would have borrowed the line from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “Almost, nearly one.”

In spite of what didn’t happen, I became very busy. I am convinced none of it was my doing.

Countless projects materialized out of thin air, pastors contacted me out of the blue, and commissions piled up. Work became a constant. What once was a one or two year waiting list for side-jobs is now a two or three year waiting list in a full-time job. It wasn’t until someone quipped that they love my job did I realize that I, in fact, have one. Wearing jammies in the afternoon doesn’t necessarily mean one is unemployed.

And while I was forced to say goodbye to a few dear friends at the office and, in some cases, forego the farewells altogether, I have gained new acquaintances and friends. Some of those friendships mean close collaborative efforts, including a book project and vestment designs for a small firm. In other cases, individuals have gone out of their way to create work for me and have promoted me far better than I do.

Losing a job can be humbling. Laboring at my current work is even more so.

One year ago today, I was escorted out the door of a company where I had labored for nearly 31 years. To put it plainly, I was no longer wanted there. But while I now need permission to walk those office floors, a church in Austin, Texas, is interested in what I can do with their terrazzo floors. Three other churches are interested in what I can do for their walls, and an additional two – one in Cincinnati and one in Fowler, Mich., have approved commissions for their walls. I recently delivered a piece to a church in Frankenmuth, Mich., that flanks the altar of the Lord. I am currently working on a piece that will sit on another altar in Wausau, Wisc.

One piece that defines my new role and my not-so-new “Boss” will soon be found in a church in Denver. While not the largest or most grandiose of art, and while covered for all but one day of the year, a simple design of mine will grace not some “hallowed” wall of commerce or industry, but will be engraved, in stone, on the very altar of the Lord.

“Altar top design”
Edward Riojas. 2016. (Trinity Lutheran Church, Denver, Colorado)