Friday, June 30, 2017


“When they had all had enough to eat, [Jesus] said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” – John 6: 12

Copyright © Edward Riojas

No one likes to feel like a leftover. Not you. Not me. Sadly, we have all felt that way at one time or another. Unless we were superstars of the grade school parking lot and were well acquainted with the infield fly rule, we might have ended up a little lower on the roster when picking teams for kickball. Maybe you were dead last. That can hurt.

Perhaps you languished as a wall flower during that high school dance. Or maybe you were ignored and shared a table with yourself in the cafeteria. It’s amazing how lonely a crowded school hall can feel when popularity isn’t one’s strong suit.

Later in life, there might have been promotions that passed you by. Perhaps someone toyed with your heart, and then discarded it in a corner like a piece of trash. Like the enthusiastic wave and a smile across a room that isn’t for you, the weight of feeling like a leftover can be crushing.
"Miracle of the Bread and Fish." Giovanni Lanfranco. c. 1620.
(National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)

The feeding of the 5,000 always impresses us as a colossal miracle. It is an earthly wonder that an army of hungry stomachs was satisfied with light fare from a kid’s lunch. It was a miracle indeed. It was the reason many wanted Jesus to be king – with a ruler who could constantly lay a miraculous spread like that, life would be cushy, indeed. Never mind the very different reason for Christ dwelling among us.

Unless one looks at the Scriptural account in its entirety, however, a better part of the feeding of the 5,000 might be overlooked. Contrary to the Old Testament handling of manna and the Passover meal, Jesus tells His disciples to gather the leftovers. The remnants were not to be consumed or burned or thrown out. Many commentaries either ignore the command, or chalk it up to having a frugal Savior who knew about starving children in Africa. But Christ did not come to teach responsible eating, to keep us from being litterbugs, or to lay a seed for recycling.

As was revealed during a recent sermon on the text, the Greek word that often gets translated as “that none may be wasted,” is more correctly translated as “that none may perish.” That Jesus would not only feed us, but also search out the remnants – the marginalized; the forgotten; the unwanted; the discarded; the leftovers – that they might not perish, points to a caring Savior who wants us to know we neither have to live alone, nor die alone. Therein lies the real miracle.

Friday, June 23, 2017

An Odd Duck in Christian Symbolism

"The Pelican in Her Piety"
(St. Nicholas Church, Oakley, Suffolk, England)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

One of the strangest symbols for Christ is “The Pelican in Her Piety.” There are all kinds of symbols set aside for identifying Christ Jesus – crosses, fish, rocks, cornerstones, monograms, etc. – but for some reason, that pelican has shown up in stained glass for hundreds of years. Even the church of my youth had a window with the symbol on it.

Technically, however, the symbol is wrong. Along with a handful of other images that emerged during the Middle Ages, it is based on wives' tales, legend, and, in this case, a rather inept knowledge of ornithology.

Whether it was an artist or Church father, the originator of the pelican image attempted to explain, by means of analogy, the nature and saving work of Jesus Christ. Using the stuff of a broken world to explain Christ is bound to end up falling off the tracks.

The explanation of the symbol is that, in dire times, a female pelican will pierce her own breast to save her nestling brood. It’s a no-brainer as far as the link between a bird’s saving act and the saving act of the King of all creation. But that is a big assumption for a bird. In reality, if things got dire in bird-dom, the brood would get shoved out of the nest to die. Pelicans aren’t sacrificial; they are self-serving.

On the other hand, Jesus did use a bird to describe Himself. In grieving over an unbelieving Jerusalem, He laments,  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Matthew 23:37. We must thank the Church fathers for not rushing to a chicken for the symbol of our Lord, but I digress.

Even in title, “The Pelican in Her Piety” is a little odd. Piety, however, does not here denote devoutness or reverence. Rather, it pulls from its original meaning of having “duty.” This is most significant, for in His love for His own, Christ Jesus was duty-bound to the lost and sinful and perishing. Our piety, by contrast, is negligible.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Treasure of a Painting

“Valdemar Atterdag Holding Visby to Ransom, 1361.” Carl Gustaf Hellqvist. 1882. (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Once in a while I run across a piece of art that really piques my interest. It’s impossible to be familiar with every period and genre of art throughout time and space, and I am certainly no smarty-pants when it comes to art history the world over. So it was that, while researching some unrelated topic, I ran across a piece by a nineteenth century Swedish historical painter. Carl Gustaf Hellqvist’s painting, “Valdemar Atterdag Holding Visby to Ransom, 1361,” stopped me in my tracks.

The 11 feet-wide painting is the sort of thing a child might pore over for hours. It is epic in scale, lavish in detail, and loaded with theatrical vignettes that give drama to the event.

Hellqvist was no hack. While unknown to most of us, the artist was one of the most popular painters in Sweden during his day. He showed one of his pieces in the Paris Salon, and received the gold medal in Vienna for this particular painting.

The subject of the painting is a key event in Sweden’s history, even though it essentially shows the agony of defeat. Valdemar, King of Denmark, sits on a royal throne and watches the proceedings of ransom being gathered by the vanquished citizens of Visby. The Swedish city was threatened with being burnt to the ground if three large beer vats could not be filled with gold and silver in three days.

Hellqvist divides the composition into three foreground vignettes that roughly follow the three vats, and subdivides the background into several more areas. Central to the piece is the family of Visby’s Mayor. The Mayor himself clenches his fist in anger and glares at the king. His wife looks to heaven for aid with tear-filled eyes.

To the left, a citizen bearing family heirlooms is manhandled to a beer vat by a foot soldier armed with a glaive and crossbow. The tension of the vignette is countered by a boy peering over the edge of a nearby vat to the treasures within.

On the right, a boy laden with heavy platters turns to look at the imperious Dane. A man follows the boy, bearing a compact, but heavy, money chest. The figure is most certainly a Jew, as he wears a distinctive, pointed hat required by medieval law.

As is true with many early historical painters, there are inaccuracies in the image. For instance, while the ridiculous helm ornamentation on several knights is true of Teutonic knights who may have aligned themselves with the Danish king, the presence of a Dachshund predates the dog’s emergence as a breed. And while the costuming is, indeed, close to being accurate, a woman – especially the Mayor’s wife – would not have her head uncovered. Even the city’s architecture is inaccurate for Sweden, and is instead more indicative of Germany, where the image was most-likely painted.

Still, the painting refuses to lose its grip on our imagination. The handling of paint, bearing a strong academic approach softened by hints of Impressionism, allows the viewer to be absorbed by the detail – however historically inaccurate it may be.

One might wonder why this painting – and, indeed, the subject itself – would be dear to a seemingly-vanquished nation. The ruthless King Valdemar might have been wishing to burn the city, and make off with a bit of treasure anyway. The citizens of Visby, however, didn’t need three days to scrounge for enough gold and silver to save their city. They did so in one day.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Father of All Art Curmudgeons

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Leave it to a curmudgeon.

Artists can add immense beauty to the world, and thrive on attempting the same. For some reason that lies deeply embedded in our noodles, we can’t leave well enough alone or accept the visually mundane. It’s part of our DNA. But when others take issue with what an artist produces; or criticizes, second guesses, or otherwise gets high-handed with creativity, then sparks fly. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, known mostly by his first name, was the crème de la crème when it came to being an art curmudgeon.

Michelangelo disdained recreating likenesses of patrons, and aimed instead for ideal visages. This issue once came to a head when Michelangelo finished the imposing sepulchers of Giuliano di Lorenzo de' Medici and Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici in the Medici Chapel. Neither heroic sculpture bore resemblance to the interred. The moneyed family pushed him on the point. Michelangelo famously responded, “Who will care what they look like in 1,000 years?”
"The Last Judgement" [detail], showing
Biagio da Cesena, at right.
Michelangelo. 1536-1541.
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican City)

Apparently, however, the artist didn’t always take his own advice. Michelangelo also endured constant criticism for innumerable details while working on frescos in the Sistine Chapel. There was too much nudity. There were too many muscled figures. There was not enough decorum. There was too much foreshortening of figures.

Chief among his detractors was Biagio da Cesena, the Pope's Master of Ceremonies. da Cesena’s annoyance must have been great indeed, because Michelangelo painted the official’s likeness, from memory, on the donkey-eared body of Minos next to the rest of the damned in “The Last Judgement.” The likeness was instantly recognized by all, including the livid da Cesena, who stormed into the Pope’s presence and demanded that the pontiff do something about it.

The Pope, in a rare moment of Divine inspiration, reminded da Cesena that the Pope’s jurisdiction went only so far as purgatory. Correcting things in hell was quite another matter.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Hand of God

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Fall screwed up everything. There aren’t words or time enough to delineate the rot and destruction brought on by one foolish act. We could blame Adam and we often do, but we have done our worst to pile on foolishness upon foolishness of our own making. If we are honest with ourselves, Adam probably pales by comparison.

One result of the Fall is that we cannot look at the face of God The Father and live. Those who tried ended up as toast. Sure, we saw the face of His Son, and manifestations of The Spirit were visible, but One was cloaked in His manhood and the Other was granted man to see. The Father’s face is off limits this side of heaven.

Scripture bears this out. Moses asked an impossible thing in Exodus 33:

    "18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
    19 And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

    21 Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen."

And the prophet, Job, relished the heavenly day in Job 19:

     “25 I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. 26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; 27 I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”

It is therefore vexing when big names in art ignored the rule and attempted to depict The Father. Dürer did it. So did Cranach, Campin, Murillo, Masaccio and others. While all of them handled the modelling of the figure in their usual masterly fashion, none of them captured the omnipotence and majesty of the Person. In this, they failed miserably; each of the depictions simply looks like an old man or a missing member of ZZ Top.

And, of course, none of the images remotely comes close to killing the viewer.
"The Hand of the Father in Blessing."
Copyright © Edward Riojas

But there is a better alternative found in Christian symbolism. The Hand of God, set in front of a tri-radiant nimbus, has been used for centuries as a visual for The Father. It denies the viewer a peek at God’s face, and echoes the Word of the Lord Himself in the Exodus account: “I will ... cover you with my hand until I have passed by.”

It is more than enough to be covered by His hand. It is love beyond the telling to be blessed by the same. And by the same, awe and terror come, as even Pharaoh’s magicians admitted, “This is the finger of God.”

We needn’t feel slighted by getting only this tiny peek at The Father, for as Christ Himself proclaimed, “But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The Christian may relish being held in the palm of His hand. Seeing the face of God, on the other hand, can wait until a more glorious day.