Friday, March 31, 2017

Stuck on Stigmata

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I still bear a nasty, transverse scar on the top of my head from a childhood incident, but I’m almost positive it has nothing to do with St. Peter of Verona. There’s a good possibility I also have a scar as the result of my brother chucking stones at me, and yet St. Stephen has never come into the mix.
Artist Bartolome Esteban
Murillo takes heretical
liberties with his painting,
"St. Francis of Assisi Embracing
the Crucified Christ" c. 1669
(Museum of Fine Art, Seville)

It is a curious thing that Catholics of the Roman persuasion get hung up on stigmata – the wounds of Christ – that somehow appear on [somewhat] normal folks, and desperately try to make a mystical connection. The key word is “curious.”

St. Francis of Assisi is thought to be the first stigmatic, or bearer of stigmata, and a rather long list of stigmatics followed in his wobbly train. It’s common practice to depict St. Francis with stigmata. That is, unless he’s otherwise depicted as occupying himself with a sermon for the birds or, in the example at right, getting all inappropriate at the crucifixion of Jesus. Curious.

St. Catherine of Siena also oozed mysticism. However, don’t confuse her crown of thorns with the stigmata, and try to ignore that invisible ring which proves her marriage to Jesus. And please, oh, please don’t get too curious about her [invisible] ring!

While wading through images of similar devotees, the nagging question eventually surfaced, “So what?” So you fell on some glass or decided to claw a hole in your hand. So what?
Another piece that exudes
mystical weirdness.
"St. Catherine of Siena"
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. c. 1746.
(Museum of Art History, Vienna)

Every year when Holy Week comes along, pockets of Roman Catholics around the globe do the self-flagellation thing or have themselves crucified. But doing so doesn’t help squat where sins are concerned. (Ask the criminals crucified alongside Jesus how it worked for them!) And St. Paul’s mention of “Bearing the marks of Christ,” shouldn’t go beyond the fact that he simply had the snot beat out of him for the sake of the Gospel; throughout his flurry of misadventures, Paul never mentioned being crucified.

There is also telltale evidence of serious Tomfoolery with several stigmatics. Curiously, a number of them had carbolic acid and disinfectants in the cupboard. The former would certainly cause a wound (if self-mutilation didn’t do the trick), and the latter would keep infection at bay. Magdalena de la Cruz, considered for a number of years to be a living saint, later confessed that her stigmata was a ruse, causing her, in turn, to become the patron saint of not-a-whole-lot.

Having the wounds of Christ means little, if anything. The curious wounds in the palms of your hands, your bleeding eyes, the nasty cuts that mess up your bedding, and that hole in your side did not – and cannot – save you or anyone else from their sins. A good number of us in Christendom are not wowed. Nor should we be. Only the wounds of Jesus Christ could atone for the sins of the world – once, and for all – and that they did.

What is more, mystical misfits undermine a much more important mark. That mark occurred when you and I were Baptized in the Name of The Father and of The Son and of The Holy Spirit. The sign of the cross marked them and us as His, and nothing – NOTHING – can supersede, supplant, or mystify that fact. For those of you still managing nifty stigmata, go buy a box of Band-Aids and please get over it already.


Friday, March 24, 2017

Take a Little Journey with Me

Copyright © Edward Riojas

One of the joys of being an artist is the ability to take viewers on a journey. This is certainly true of writers and performing artists, as well.

One of my favorite pieces [below] is an innocent, little thing I created as a gift. While it has neither theological significance, nor the weight of heady concerns, it yet remains a powerful piece.

Without the viewer's knowledge, I have gently taken them to a specific time and place, and introduced them to a small handful of characters. I don't tell the viewer a story, but they instinctively know there is one. Perhaps they know a great many chapters of the story.

Personalities of the characters emerge, with idiosyncrasies and histories of their own. The viewer knows the breed of the dog, its temperament, and how it contrasts with its owner's demeanor.

Ambient noise echoes faintly somewhere in the viewer's mind. A melody floats by. Emotions are gently tickled. A visible smile might even come.

But the place never existed. The event never happened. Neither the characters, nor the dog, nor anything surrounding them ever existed.

Perhaps most amazingly, the viewer finally comes to the realization that, for the past few moments, they have been taken somewhere past reality – while looking at a single sheet of black paper.

"The Night Watch." Edward Riojas. 2010. (Riojas collection)
Copyright © Edward Riojas. Image may not be reproduced for any reason.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Little Things in Life

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I should have known better. I should have known that the Voces8 rendition of Edward Elgar’s “Lux Aeterna” would push me over the edge. It did.

I allowed tears to gush for awhile, then headed out to my cold woodshop with a small armful of lumber.

It is one thing to build an adult’s casket, as I did for my father, but it is quite another to do the same for a tiny infant. I considered it a great honor to do this one final thing for my little granddaughter, Perpetua Felicity.
Thank you to Carrie Roberts of
Ecclesiastical Sewing, who
created this miniature pall
for the casket.

The casket’s interior is only nine inches long – probably too long, even with all the extra cushion that went inside. Making such a small container was sobering and difficult. So was watching my daughter unravel an unfinished baby blanket to crochet a much smaller one.

Caring for the “least of these” in this manner is important for them – and for us. They are, after all, part of that world for which Jesus Christ died. Perpetua is His. For our part, we will always need to be reminded of the fragility of this life, and the Hope of the more blessed one to come.

I built the little casket in such a way that its lid is secured by bolts piercing a cross – representing the five wounds of Christ. In death, Perpetua Felicity – whose name means “Everlasting Happiness” – is held by the victorious cross of Christ. In life eternal, she will be held by the same. And that is huge.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Zion Altarpiece: A Work in Progress

Detail from "The Zion Altarpiece" [in progress]. Edward Riojas. 2017.
Copyright © Edward Riojas. No images shown may be reproduced for any reason.

For a change of pace, I decided to allow a little sneak peek into a project on which I have been working. The project probably began years ago, but work intensified this past year when the cabinet components for a "small" altarpiece took shape. This winter was spent painting its panels. Even though there is still much to do on the piece, I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The altarpiece is being created for the chapel of Zion Lutheran Church in Wausau, Wisconsin. For being such a compact piece, there is much more to it than first meets the eye. It has four doors. Each door has a painting on either side, and each door hides an image behind it. In all, there are 11 panels. Those panels contain approximately 65 figures.

There are four general scenes contained in the altarpiece, and each is revealed in turn during specific days of the church year. For most of the year, the crucifixion of Christ is visible. On Palm Sunday, the outer doors are opened to reveal Christ's entry into Jerusalem and Christ washing the disciples' feet. On Easter, the central doors are opened, hiding the crucifixion and revealing the Resurrection of Christ and a view of the heavenly host in worship.

Friday, March 3, 2017

What Colors Confess

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Why did you paint Him that color?” The question seemed a little out of place at first, then innocent. In the end, however, the question reminded me of the importance of color choices – especially for the sacred artist.

Colors play a large role in the Church Year. They identify seasons, and give context in worship. Penitential violet, joyous white, Spiritual red, life-giving green, and mournful black help us understand, at a glance, the focus of the Gospel readings. There are a couple of other colors that appear throughout the Church Year – Kingly blue and, occasionally, joyful rose. Or pink. Or watermelon. Whatever.
Detail from "Parables of the Vineyard"
Edward Riojas. 2017.
(Collection of the artist)
Copyright © Edward Riojas.
Image may not be reproduced for
any reason.

But there are colors that carry much more theological weight than rose or violet, which brings us back to that initial question. The query was directed at an image of Jesus Christ on the cross.

I have a tendency to paint the dead Christ in grayed-over tones of bluish-green. His lips lean toward white. His fingers and toes edge toward black. It is intentionally ugly, to the point of being anatomically over-played.

The visual point – circled and underscored and highlighted in red – is that Jesus Christ was, indeed, dead on that cross. Another viewer once rhetorically asked, “Can’t we just get beyond [the crucifixion]?” The simple answer is: No, we cannot. We dare not.

Glossing over the physical death of Christ not only plasticizes His death and minimizes the effects of our sin, but also throws us squarely into the pit alongside heretical proponents of Sabellianism, Docetism and other -isms. Those heresies taught Christ was basically not human and, therefore, could not die.

But die He did. Christ’s death was the sacrifice for sins of the whole world, and I am bound to painting Him thus – with the colors of death.

On the opposite side of the grave, a livelier palette comes out. It becomes a matter of anatomy, really. Blood vessels are abundant in the human face, especially in the areas of the nose, ears and lips. One need only get a head wound to understand as much. The hands – especially the backs of the hands – are loaded with arteries. It may seem a no-brainer, then, that the Risen Christ be shown with more reds in those areas. His eyes should gleam and not be dull and unseeing.

In painting the Christ this way – with “rich wounds yet visible,” but full of life – the Sadducees, who did not believe in the Resurrection of the flesh, are put to shame and silenced. So is everything else outside of Christendom. Jesus Christ lives. There is no questioning it. And because He lives, we, too, will rise.