Friday, May 26, 2017

The Zion Altarpiece

The Zion Altarpiece. Edward Riojas. 2017.
(Shown in situ at Zion Lutheran Church, Wausau, Wisconsin)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I recently installed an Altarpiece at Zion Lutheran Church in Wausau, Wisconsin. It was dedicated last Sunday. What follows is a full explanation of the piece, and reflections on the same.


It is not often that an artist receives a commission to create an altarpiece. The days of resplendent high altars, sizeable populations of Renaissance-minded artisans, and deep pockets of the Church are, for the most part, a thing of the past. Creating something new, yet decidedly-old school, is therefore cause for pondering such an ambitious undertaking.

While the Zion Altarpiece is relatively modest in size, its creation nonetheless contained monumental questions: How does one even begin to capture the Eternal Majesty of Almighty God? How does one put in finite terms Him who is infinite? How does one convey the richness; the glory; the wonder of His Divine plan that so totally eclipses the mundane and evil of this broken world?

Like the haunting questions once asked me by a Muslim, “Who was that man, and why did he have to die?,” the answers seem inexhaustible in explanation and unfathomable in understanding. Yet we cannot help but try.

For the same reason that there is more than one hymn to sing, there is always reason to create art that confesses this God-Man who loves us with a never-ending, sacrificial love. We cannot help but give praise to The Lord, even when such an endless train of saints have already done so before us.

The answer to that Muslim’s question begins with the simple: We deserve to die for our sins. One must die for the sins of many. Death could not hold Him who holds all of creation in His hands. He lives. We therefore will live.

These simple truths are fleshed-out and expounded upon: The saints will live. So, too, the martyrs. The old. The young. The saints of every tribe and nation. All blessed by the One who came to serve. To wash our feet. To willingly die on a cross intended for us. To do that which we could not do. To cleanse our souls.


In the 500th year of the Reformation, Anno + Domini 2017

It is a daunting task to visually explain an infinite God in finite terms; it is a daunting task to display the wonder of our Lord’s creation and His plan of salvation through anything created by man. Indeed, this world does not have space enough to show it. Yet we cannot help but try, even with unclean hands, to do so – even in the confines of a church building; even in a niche of a chapel; even in this very altarpiece.

The Zion Altarpiece is a greatly abbreviated visual of the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. It is not intended to be a photographic record of the events, nor could it be. Rather, it is a reminder of what is written in Holy Scripture, and is intended to be an arrow that points to The Word. This is achieved through straightforward representationalism and conventional symbolism, both of which are among the least likely to confound Scripture.

The Zion Altarpiece in the "closed" position,
shown during final fitting of the panels and doors.

The altarpiece is designed in such a manner that, during most of the Church Year, it displays one scene – the Crucifixion. During Lent, two flanking doors are opened, displaying two scenes leading up to the Crucifixion. Finally, On Easter Sunday, two central doors are opened, obscuring the previous three scenes and displaying a compound Resurrection/Heavenly worship scene.

The Crucifixion scene is stripped of many historical figures and setting, focusing instead on the figure of Jesus Christ in death. His body is intentionally shown in advanced decay. The weight of His body pulls against the nails. Rigor mortis is already setting in. In this the soldiers and Pontius Pilate marveled, that He would be dead so soon; that He gave up His life so willingly. St. John the Gospel writer, being the good proto-Lutheran, over-stressed the point that both blood and water poured out of His side. This is underscored by an angel collecting the blood in a Chalice and the water in a Baptismal font. Out of reverence, a cloth has been placed over the genitals of Christ, but His nakedness was certainly exposed at the Crucifixion. The Father has turned His back on His sin-absorbing Son, evidenced in the blackened sky. The Man Christ Jesus is dead, yet the Tri-radiant nimbus behind His head proclaims Him a Person of The Holy Trinity. He IS God.

It is unlikely that the witnesses of Jesus’ death would be so near, but I have placed them in close proximity. Mary, the mother of our Lord, is dressed in traditional blue and white, and puts her hand to her heart as a ‘sword pierces it.’ John attempts to comfort his newly-adopted mother. Following tradition, he is shown beardless and comparatively young. In the foreground, Mary of Magdella demonstratively kneels, faintly echoing the anointing of Christ’s feet. In the background, another Mary weeps. Following convention, the outer panels contain weeping angels that join in lamentation.

There is, however, a foreshadowing of the Resurrection below Jesus‘ feet, and a reminder that Christ IS victorious. Satan’s head has been utterly crushed by the weight of the cross, and driven beneath the earth. Death, too, lies broken at Christ‘s feet.
The Zion Altarpiece in the Lent/Holy Week position.

When the outer doors are opened during Lent, two additional scenes appear as the weeping angels are hidden from view. On the left is Christ Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowd enthusiastically welcomes Jesus, although it is doubtful they understand fully who He is. Jesus, by comparison, resolutely confronts the viewer while pointing to Jerusalem – and His own Crucifixion.

The right-hand scene is of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in an example of servanthood. Peter is the first to be washed. The remaining disciples – an unlikely band of common laborers lacking pedigree – wait behind Peter. A view of Jerusalem’s temple mount and an ominous hill beyond are visible through an open window.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ changed everything. So, too, does the Zion Altarpiece when the central doors are opened for Easter. In a visual slight-of-hand, the open outer doors play a different role in the scene of Heavenly worship over the Resurrection. In passing through the portal of Jesus’ death; through His redemption of our souls; through His blood shed on a far uglier mount,

“...You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
The Zion Altarpiece, with doors fully open in the Easter position.

Jesus Christ, The Victorious Lamb, emerges from the mount's tomb in swaddling grave cloths. That tomb's portal echoes details of the Temple’s sacrificial altar. The Lamb, sacrificed though now living, bears the Victorious banner of The Cross. Heaven, depicted as a traditional orb, stoops down to claim the King. The Four Creatures – symbols of the Holy Gospels – surround Him as His crown and Tri-radiant nimbus declare him Lord of all.

And angels and the heavenly host worship the risen Christ; the Victorious Lamb. To the left, palm-bearing martyrs – a noble army – praise His Name. Several in the small sampling can be identified: The Holy Innocents, young boys who gave their lives for Jesus as Herod tried in vain to destroy the Infant Jesus, toddle toward their Savior. Near them is the aged martyr, Polycarp, who refused to deny his Christ after more than 80 years. Behind Polycarp is John the Forerunner, still proclaiming to us, “Behold The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Next to John are more martyrs, including Potamiaena and Perpetua and Bartholomew, who carries his own flayed skin.

On the far right are the glorious company of the Apostles. By a visual slight-of-hand, Peter is added behind the group to replace Judas Iscariot.

Between the Apostles and the risen Lord is a mixture of Prophets and saints. The handful of prophets are identified by conspicuously long beards and scrolls of Scripture, the latter which they embrace to their chests.

We may also include ourselves in this panel. The young boy’s glance toward the viewer urges us to join this host of young and old, male and female, and saints of every nation and tongue. Here, in time, we join with heaven at The Lord’s Table, and we look forward to that day, in Eternity, when we shall do the same with endless joy.

To Him be the Glory for ever and ever. Amen.

To order giclee prints of images from the Zion Altarpiece, please go to the Price list page of

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