Friday, December 28, 2018

What’s Going On

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The coming of a new year forces some of us to seriously assess what we’ve actually accomplished throughout the past year and what we may expect in the next. It’s not necessarily a feeling of woe – it’s simply reality. If your time, like mine, is filled with long-term projects, then the “out box” might seem lacking, adding to the false impression that not much at all was accomplished.
"Baptismal Triptych."
Detail showing the crossing of the Red Sea.
Copyright © Edward Riojas

I’m not in the habit of keeping everyone abreast of my current projects, preferring instead to do “show and tell” when things are seriously close to being finished. Artists, by nature, chafe at showing others unfinished work. Often, that’s because there are early stages that can look ugly in spite of a very different end. No one wants to show off underwear that will be hidden beneath a tuxedo.

At the expense, therefore, of being a bit premature, I thought I would give a peek into some things that are either waiting for varnishing or are still in the drawing stage. Let me reassure you that I haven’t been twiddling my thumbs or binge-watching Netflix. OK, one out of two isn’t too bad, is it?

The Baptismal Triptych
This commission began months ago. The roughly eight-by-eight-feet piece will be placed behind the Baptismal font at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Hankinson, N.D. The text of Luther’s ‘Flood Prayer,’ which is part of the order of Holy Baptism, will feature prominently on the panels, along with imagery surrounding the prayer.
Floor design conceptual drawing
for the Holy Incarnation.
Copyright © Edward Riojas

Floor Designs
Sometimes I get opportunities that are fun simply because of the materials involved. Although I only have a design role, the floor project for Trinity Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas, is one such opportunity. Using a decidedly old-school technique, the church will use terrazzo to embellish the narthex and sanctuary floors. Eleven roundels will hold symbolism relating to Lutheran confessions and the life of Christ.

Terrazzo makes use of what is essentially colored aggregate and cement which is carefully placed in intricate, flexible forms. Once dried and cured, the surface is then ground down and polished. Often the forms themselves are left in place – especially if the design calls for brass or silver-colored lines. What makes this ongoing project challenging is that no human images are to be used. No one, after all, would dare walk on an image of Christ.
Superfrontal and Chalice Veil.
Edward Riojas.
Copyright © Ecclesiastical Sewing

Ongoing work with Ecclesiastical Sewing is always rewarding. The eagerness with which I attack embroidery designs is matched only by the anticipation of finally seeing them executed. It doesn’t help that there is a natural lag time of digitally producing the images, so some designs are seemingly long in coming. Shown here is part of a new “White Set” that can be used for either Christmas or Easter, but look for wonderfully massive sets for Lent and Christmas in the future, along with a constant stream of other seasonal sets.

Chapel Walls
A few weeks ago I received confirmation of a commission for a series of paintings for the chapel walls of Zion Lutheran Church in Wausau, Wisc. Only very rough thumbnail drawings have been done, but the theme will show all of creation in adoration of the Lord. The wall piece will compliment another of my works in the same chapel – The Zion Altarpiece.

Working drawing for "Baptismal Mural." Copyright © Edward Riojas 

Baptismal Mural
Just last night I had a conference call with members of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Council Bluffs, Iowa, to chat about a project that was previously on a back-burner. Work will hopefully begin mid- to late-summer of this coming year. It will be on a wall in the new environs of the St. Paul Music Conservatory – an entity for which I provide illustrations. The mural will also be in proximity to another mural of mine showing Jesus surrounded by children.

Book Project
I am in the early stages of a large project that will necessitate painting eleven or so oil paintings. I don’t yet feel I can divulge details of the book for Kloria Publishing because, well, I don’t want to spill ALL the beans.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Reflections of Christmas

Copyright © Edward Riojas

A picture is worth a thousand words. For today's post, I've collected a few images of the Holy Nativity, courtesy of the masters, and decided to let them have their say, with little commentary of my own. None of them are first-hand accounts of the birth of Christ, since there is no record of any artist being present. Collectively, however, they point to the wonder of God's love – that He was born as a Child, that He saved us helpless sinners through His death and resurrection, and that He claims us as His own dear children.

Detail of Nativity Icon (Grotto of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem)

Nativity. Fra Angelico. c. 1441. (Convent of San Marco, Florence)

Nativity. Gerard David. c. 1515. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

The Adoration of the Shepherds. Georges de La Tour. 1644. (The Louvre, Paris)

The Nativity. Edward Burne-Jones. 1888. (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh)

Mexican 'Tree of Life' Nacimiento. Attributed to Alfonso Soteno Fernandez.

Modern Nativity Icon. Unknown artist.
(Note the swaddled Child in a stone manger, a conspicuous sign of  Christ's eventual death.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Christmas Nostalgia

"Merry Christmas Grandma ...
we came in our new Plymouth!"
Norman Rockwell. 1949.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat
Please do put a penny in the old man's hat
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do
If you haven't got a ha'penny, then God bless you!”

It’s hard to escape nostalgia this time of year. It drips off snowy roofs, Christmas trees, and everything else that surrounds us. Christmas songs – especially secular ones – have been playing since Halloween, filling radio waves, shopping malls, and grocery stores with jingle bells, chimes, and glockenspiels. Admittedly, even curmudgeons allow for the seasonal wave of sappy songs, but there is a peculiar aspect of this nostalgia that we are often loath to admit – it is a nostalgia that is often not our own.

Teenagers may well recognize the raspy voice in “Holly Jolly Christmas,” even though Burl Ives recorded the song in 1964 – more than half a century before they were born. Many of us sentimentally cling to Bing Crosby’s “I’ll be home for Christmas,” though the song first struck a tender chord for a nation caught up in a World War. Few of us were around to fully appreciate the song’s original context in 1943. Our collective nostalgia goes far beyond the experiences of our parents and grandparents, and little stops us from getting caught up in visions of one-horse open sleighs, ha’pennies, and figgy pudding.

This sort of false recollection was also shared, in Biblical proportions, by the children of Israel. They waxed nostalgic in classic fashion when complaining of being led into the desert by Moses.

““Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”” [Numbers 11: 4b,5]

Unfortunately, they didn’t remember the ‘free’ fish was paid for with harsh labor and scourging and death. One can easily assume their visions of abundant produce were exaggerated, as well.

There is a vast difference between man’s ability to reminisce and the Lord’s memory. Whenever Scripture says that the Lord “remembered,” it is always linked to something immense and unfathomable. It is often extremely tenderhearted as only a Divine Father may own. Sometimes it is inescapably terrible, but never is it clouded by sappy nostalgia – false or otherwise.

In yet another Divine mystery, God remembers His promises, even when sin is seemingly the deal-breaker. While the world was in such a state – indeed, precisely BECAUSE it was in such a state – the Lord remembered the promise made to our first parents and sent a Redeemer into the world as the Christ Child. Christmas is a time for us to remember all that the Lord has done for us; for stooping to our sin-filled world; for His love in sacrificing His own Son on our behalf.

And if the mystery of His Divine memory is not enough, we look forward to that day when the God of all creation will somehow deny His own omniscience and lose His memory. As He promises in Jeremiah 31: 34b, “...I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” This is something we dare never forget.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Violet or Blue?

Blue, violet, and other colors are available in the Luther brocade and other fabric selections from

Copyright © Edward Riojas

More than opinions involving fruitcake or those pitting St. Nicholas against the pagan obesity, there is perhaps one issue that most clearly divides Christendom this time of year. It doesn’t involve the interpretation of Scripture or articles of the Augsburg Confession or even political leanings. It involves color.

I was recently reminded of this when sharing a photo of vestments in progress on the work table of Ecclesiastical Sewing. Amid a sea of kind compliments, there were little eddies of discontent with the Advent color choice of [gasp!] blue.

Some churches stick to violet and others stick to blue. Both colors have their virtues – if colors can, indeed, be virtuous. Violet is most often associated with penitence. Blue, if kept away from lighter shades, is associated with royalty. Violet is the color of Lent. Both Lent and Advent carry strong overtones of penitence and the need for a Savior to be born and to die for the sake of sinful man. Blue, on the other hand, points to the Advent of our King, His coming as the Infant Christ, and His coming again at the last.

But where did these colors come from in the first place, and how did they come to symbolize a Church season? This is, of course, the point at which one may expect the debate to be settled; where history states its case; where we can all have clear consciences that our own church is spot-on with tradition. Just don’t hold your breath too long.

The history of colored vestments and paraments is a very convoluted thing, and it doesn’t always have anything to do with a color’s meaning. Assigning meaning to color congealed in the Middle Ages, when heraldic symbols – and colors – became all the rage. I put the historical question to Carrie Roberts, owner of Ecclesiastical Sewing, and quickly found out that early churches had “ or maybe two sets of vestments that were "good" – those being white – and if the church were wealthy enough, red. Other sets for non-festival days were brown or whatever color was available.” Brown? I wonder what that means. Carrie summed it up best in saying the use of color on vestments and paraments is a “muddled historical mess.”

In short, neither violet nor blue is superior to the other, and it’s okay to use either or both or none at all. Now about those rose-colored vestments for Gaudete Sunday...

Friday, November 30, 2018

It’s Not About Me

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s not always about me. Okay, maybe it’s about me 95% of the time, but that isn’t true today.

Today, it’s about a few other Lutheran artists. They, like myself, may not be Cranach, but we all are still among the living – and the wage-seeking – and that is significant. Creating artwork for the Church, you see, is not exactly a lucrative endeavor. My fellows and I know it, but still we create art. And while it may seem trite to claim a Luther quote, some of us honestly, “Can do no other.”

I realize that in spotlighting the following folks I may be neglecting other fine Lutherans blessed with artistic talent. For that I apologize beforehand. If this holiday season – or any other time of year – you are looking for a special gift or a special commissioned piece, please consider these folks or other Lutherans like them.

Jonathan Mayer
Jonathan currently works for a stained-glass company, but his Scapegoat Studio still provides a variety of liturgical products.

Kelly Schumacher
Kelly’s Agnus Dei Liturgical Arts offers giclee prints, greeting cards, art lessons, and the like. I’m quite sure she also takes on commissions.

Carrie Roberts
The go-to person for vestment and parament concerns, her enterprise, Ecclesiastical Sewing, provides some spectacular solutions for Lutheran sanctuaries.

Tanya Nevin
For affordable, unique [Lutheran] gifts, or ideas that are a bit off the grid, consider Tanya’s work. Her products are shown here on Redbubble, but she also has a presence on Facebook and other places, too.

Kelly Klages
Kelly creates jewelry pieces that might appeal to the feminine portion of your gift list. Her products, along with the products of some others mentioned above, can be found at the site of yet another Lutheran enterprise, Ad Crucem. And, yes, most of my work can also be found at Ad Crucem, as well as some products I designed exclusively for them. (THAT sentence was the 5% me.)

Friday, November 23, 2018

A Gift Guide for Churches & Pastors

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s Black Friday, and if folks haven’t already maxed-out their credit cards on Thanksgiving night, they are making a noble effort to do so today. While we usually dote on those closest to us when it comes to gift-giving, it’s also nice to consider those who weekly give us gifts of infinitely greater value – our pastors. What follows are a few gift ideas for either your pastor or your church, and yes, they shamelessly come, in some form, from my own hand.

Ordination certificates and the same celebrating an anniversary are a nice way to give honor to the Office of the Ministry. The certificates are meant to be seen, and are a great reminder of the greater responsibility of those who shepherd wayward sheep. Certificates are 11” x 17” and include custom digital lettering. $75

The Great Shepherd
This giclée print also makes a very special gift for pastors. Originally commissioned by Doxology, the image shows a slightly different aspect of being faithful to the Great Overseer of our souls. “The Great Shepherd” giclée print, 9” x 15.75”/$75; 14” x 24.25”/$110.

Luther’s Sacristy Prayer
Available as either a giclée print or a standard print, this simple, yet profound prayer  before celebrating the Divine Service. And Matins. And Vespers. And Compline... “Sacristy Prayer” 5” x 7” standard print/$15; 7” x 10” standard print/$20; 14.5 x 20” giclée print/$100.

Giclée Prints on a Sacred Theme
I offer a large range of edifying images that make lovely gifts for your pastor or your church [or for anyone]. There are simply too many to mention here, so go to and mine through the sacred art section.

Vestments and Paraments
There is nothing worse than letting sanctuary cloth get threadbare or dingy. We don’t let it happen in our own homes, and neither should it happen in the Lord’s House. Ecclesiastical Sewing offers exquisite fabric, embroideries, and know-how to create vestments and paraments worthy of the sanctuary. Some of the embroideries are my designs and exclusive to Ecclesiastical Sewing.

Special Commissions
Once in a great while, memorials or a member with means can make an art commission possible. While I have, at present, a two-year waiting list, it often takes that long to walk through the commission process. One very special idea is a processional crucifix. I was wise enough to have three bronze castings made while working on a recent processional project, so I still have two Corpuses available. For inquiries, more information, or to order giclée prints, please e-mail me at

Friday, November 16, 2018

Getting Cute For Once

Images from the giclée print set, "There Was A Pig" Copyright © Edward Riojas. Images may not be reproduced.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I do not live a cloistered life. While I now work almost exclusively on projects within the Church, not everything I’ve created is intended for the sacred realm. For decades I worked as an illustrator/graphics guy in the newspaper industry, and drew inspiration from all sorts of artists and genres. I still draw inspiration from unlikely places and people, including Miss Mason.

Today I thought I would showcase a set of giclée prints that would not exist if it weren’t for the work of Miss Mason, along with my own simple desire to create something impossibly cute. I’ve always thought that one or two of these – or the entire set – would be adorable on the wall of a child’s room or nursery. [hint. hint.]

Miss Mason (Marianne Harriet Mason)  lived in Victorian England. Coming from a family of means and being thoroughly modern, she was able to dabble in a variety of interests, including botany illustration and specimen collecting. She worked as a civil servant, inspecting the placement of foster children. She was also the first woman to collect the lyrics and music of local folk songs.

In 1877 Miss Mason published “Nursery Rhymes and Country Songs,” in part as an homage to recollections of her own childhood nurses, and also to sidestep the not-so-refined term “folk song.” The last song in the collection was a very old song, probably of Northumbrian origin, entitled, “There Was A Pig Went Out To Dig.”

It is a curious thing that this little ditty, while stringing together agricultural practices and animal species, is essentially a Christmas song. To more noble ears, the folk song is simply nonsense, but like many other mummer tunes it speaks to the long-held importance of Holy Days, if in mention only.

While the song had rather humble origins, the tune was later elevated to an embellished score by composer Percy Grainger. Like many of folk-based tunes of the period, “There Was A Pig” bears musical similarities to another tune, in this case, “I Saw Three Ships.”

Because I created these images as book illustrations, there are both vertical images intended for single pages, and horizontal counterparts originally created as two-page spreads. Sizes and prices for prints in the set, along with a large variety of other giclée prints, both sacred and secular, can be found on my website,

Friday, November 9, 2018

Historical Accuracy and the Sacred Artist

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I know just enough about history to get me in trouble.

It isn’t that I dislike history, but I often miss many of the nuances and particulars that so many historians relish. That can become a problem for the sacred artist.

At various times, I have been called to task for [still] putting Jesus on the cross, for giving Mary a cloak that was above her pay grade, and for making the Bethlehem shepherds look too Middle-eastern. Um, okay, I will never understand that last one, but you get the idea.

Of course, Christians mostly agree that the contents of the Bible are historical fact. (Those that don’t confess as much live in Quackville.) But how then do we handle the historicity of Biblical events – especially those involving Jesus Christ?

Sacred art is very unlike historical art. Historians and lovers of history will comb over every detail of a historical painting, assessing whether or not the events and characters were accurately portrayed, or whether things were pulled out of context to glorify someone or to achieve an agenda. John Trumbull’s famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence is a classic example of questionable accuracy. So is Frederic Remington’s painting of Custer’s last stand.

Quite frankly, I know most of my sacred pieces are not chock full of historical detail, so it does little to inform me that the mother of our Lord could not possibly have been able to afford a garment of ultramarine blue. I already know that. In sacred art, however, the spiritual reality will always trump its historical counterpart. The Bible is not, after all, simply a historical tome of the dead past – it is the Living Word.

So Mary is often shown wearing a deep blue frock because blue was once an expensive color made from semi-precious stone, and the honor was given to her as being “Blessed ... among women.” The body of Christ is shown on the cross to remind us of the cost of our redemption and the perfect love of our Lord. And shepherds are depicted as Middle-easterners because, well, apparently my sense of geography isn’t so great either.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Before the Rainbow

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Because most of the projects in which I involve myself take great quantities of time, I am often confronted with various aspects of Christianity for long periods – even the most mundane of details. I may spend hours painting the lips of Christ, for example, or spend the same amount of time looking into His eyes. I may labor, with great intimacy, over individual wounds He suffered. I may be forced to look at the pebbly ground on which He walked.

I could argue that I know all this already; that my imagination is enough to know what Scripture has told me. But thinking this way would make me a fool. I know myself well enough to know that I can never look closely enough or long enough at the brutal facts of my condition and the Love that undid it all.

I am now well into a project commissioned by Immanuel Lutheran Church, Hankinson, N.D. The piece is to be a Baptismal triptych that will provide a backdrop for the church’s Baptismal font. The theme is Martin Luther’s ‘Flood Prayer,’ and its words will be an integral part of the painting.

The painting will not only be visually heavy on the Word, but also water. Forget visions, however, of Monet’s placid pond or Seurat’s ‘Sunday Afternoon.’ The water depicted in this piece is none of that. It is awesome and frightful and even scary. It pours down unmercifully. It rises vertically. It is poised with unmistakable power. And it kills.

Too often have we glossed over reality in preference of an innocent and inoffensive version of the truth. There are probably more cartoon characters of Noah and Mrs. Noah with giraffes, two-by-two, then there are of drowning hoards. Rainbows rule, if only to show God’s mercy. Visions of Divine justice, however, have somehow been eliminated for the “G” crowd.

This triptych will hopefully change that. The sky above the ark is boiling with Divine anger. There is no escape for the subjects of God’s wrathful flood.

So, too, the triptych’s depiction of the crossing of the Red Sea. The waters rise vertically, piling up in wait for the coming Egyptians. We might even feel sorry for Pharaoh’s host, were it not for the hardening of his heart that is so reminiscent of a child’s tantrum – ignoring every bit of undeniably-destructive reality placed before him in favor of his own stubborn folly.

Placed between the flood and the crossing of the Red Sea is a depiction of our Lord’s Baptism in the Jordan River. While the river’s waters may seem gentle enough, they belie what Christ Jesus accomplished in this by fulfilling Scripture. The waters that even Naaman criticized as being less than worthy heap the sin of the world on this Sinless One.

All this is to make us sober in approaching the Baptismal font. In it, the Lord does not simply give us a dedication kiss. He doesn't give a slap on the wrist for offenses with a lick and a promise. Neither does He take us over His knee to rid us of our shame, nor does He give us a good thrashing to rid us of our sin. The saving waters of Holy Baptism kill us. The old Adam, being rotten to the core, is drowned. We are dead as door nails, buried with Christ in His own death. But, we are not left to rot. Thanks be to God, we are raised to a new life in Christ Jesus through His resurrection. And we are made His heirs.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Artistic Slight of Hand

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The next time you’re sitting in a church pew contemplating the ear lobes of the person in front of you, consider instead the crucifix – especially its hands.

When creating sacred artwork on the theme of the crucifixion, I have generally settled on a format reminiscent of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. It’s not your typical crucifix.

Most of us are used to seeing nails driven squarely into the palms of Christ’s hands, the fingers of which curl inward in response to pain. Grünewald, however, took a path that is more visually painful.

Holy Scripture does indeed say that nails were driven into His hands and feet, but “hand” was understood to include everything not covered by a sleeve. The wrist, therefore, was part of the hand. It’s been anatomically proven that a nail through the palm simply will not hold the weight of a body. On the other hand, a nail driven into the wrist will encounter  a tough mass of tendons, cartilage, and bone. Hence, I usually work in that visual direction.

Recently, however, I ignored the anatomical angle in preference of symbolism. Two sculptural projects used a variation of the more traditional approach of placing nails in the palms of Jesus. The difference is that the index and middle fingers of Christ are extended. It is only a slight difference, but the symbolism is massive. Christ, even as He dies for His wayward sheep – indeed, precisely BECAUSE He dies for His wayward sheep – blesses us with His greatest blessing.

Friday, October 12, 2018

When German Monks and Ancient Egypt Collide

Apse mural detail of the original St. John's Abbey Church
(St. John's University, Collegeville, Minn.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Beuronese school appears as a blip on the timeline of art history. It is a style of art that doesn’t make the A-list in art history survey courses and relatively few books have been written on the subject. Still, it is worthy of consideration for those at all interested in sacred art.

I was first introduced to the Beuronese school of art while visiting St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. While the school may tout its new Abbey Church, the original abbey far outshines its successor. What is more, the older facade is packed with fine examples of Beuronese art.

Beuronese art is curious in that it came into existence as a deliberate return to antiquity, complete with its own canon that encompassed ideology, approach, and appearance. Benedictine monks founded the school in Beuron, Germany, in the late 1800s. Oddly enough, the German monks looked backward to Ancient Egypt for inspiration and visual cues.

Beuronese images are filled with geometric patterns, palm trees, and “mysterious” color schemes. That’s code for “Where did they come up with THAT?” The colors are sometimes muted, but can also appear in jarring combinations. At other times colors are more rich – bordering on garish.

There is also a rigidity forced on figures, with profiles and full frontal views being the rule. The richness of figures moving effortlessly through space, as was so evident in Italian Renaissance art, is nowhere to be seen. In this regard, Beuronese figures are indeed much closer to ancient Egyptian ideals.

Upon closer inspection, however, the style of art produced by these Germanic monks seems somehow familiar. The notion of monks working in seclusion does not hold. Paralleling the Beuronese school was the development of secular art movements, and flavors of some of them – the Art Nouveau style in particular – are shared with the cloistered counterpart. It may be arguable who inspired whom, but even with his bent view of reality, Gustav Klimt’s work bears marks of Beuronese influence – so much so that art scholars have long taken note.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Symbols for the Divinely Baffling


Copyright © Edward Riojas

This is a new one on me. Apparently, the fleur-de-lis can be used as a symbol for the Holy Trinity. Frankly, I would avoid using it that application because the stylized lily overshadows every other application in its role as a symbol for the Virgin Mary. Excepting, perhaps, the Boy Scouts of America, or whatever they're now calling themselves.

Besides, there are plenty of other symbols used to identify the Holy Trinity. Most of the readily identifiable ones make use of triangles and circles and goofy triquetra shapes that are usually interwoven as inseparable knots. It all makes sense. Sort of. The Three-in-One thing is understandable, but not really. When it takes a lengthy Athanasian Creed to state the case -- which still somehow falls short -- it becomes evident the mystery of the Holy Trinity must be understood with a child-like faith, or else our heads will implode.
Detail of illumination from the
"Summa Vitiorium" by
William Peraldus, showing a
version of the Trinitarian Shield.
(unknown illuminator)
c. 1260. (British Library, London)

One symbol of the Holy Trinity has strong creedal flavors. The Trinitarian “shield” states in Latin, English, or other languages that the Son IS God, The Father IS God, The Holy Spirit IS God, but the Son IS NOT the Father, etc.

At least two other plants beside the fleur de lis have also been used to symbolize the Holy Trinity. I’m not quite sure of the metaphorical link, but the anemone flower was used by the early Church to identify the Trinity.

A better visual symbol is the shamrock, or three-leafed clover. St. Patrick is said to have used the simple plant to explain the Holy Trinity, hence its close association with Ireland. (At this point, please refrain from suggesting four-leafed clovers are totally Irish. They aren’t. If you insist upon it, someone might have to clean your clock with a shillelagh.)

One of the earliest symbols is also a slightly unexpected one. Orthodox iconography uses three Angels to represent the Holy Trinity. They are most often shown eating at a table. The reference is, of course, to Genesis 18, in which Abraham is visited by three men. They speak, however, as one, and as the Lord. During the visit, Abraham prepares a meal for them, and so they eat. It may seem odd that iconography depicts the three men as angels, complete with wings. Perhaps the tradition gives a strong nod to Hebrews 13:2, in which the idea of “entertaining angels unawares” is put before the Jewish audience.
Icon of the Holy Trinity.
Andrei Rublev. c. 1405.
(Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

As with many Christian symbols, meaning and intent can only go so far. We needn’t feel, however, that symbols are completely useless in their insufficiency. Christ Himself used word pictures, in the form of parables, to describe for us those heavenly things which defy earthly understanding. So it is with symbols of the Holy Trinity.

Friday, September 28, 2018

A Bit About Bronze

"Ferdinando I de Medici" 1608.
Giambologna and Pietro Tacca
(Piazza of the Annunziata, Florence, Italy)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Not all that glitters is gold. Sometimes it’s bronze.

I learned a bit about bronze while working on a recent project. Having previous experience in small-scale casting for a jewelry class, I decided in this case to use an art foundry’s services. The latest project was above my experience and pay grade, and I simply didn’t have any blast furnaces hanging about. Partially to keep costs down and partially to get my hands dirty, I decided to finish the piece myself. So it was that I drove to Ann Arbor to collect my [cut up] original wax model, its master mold, and three raw casts.

The color of the fresh bronze castings was a little surprising. It was a bright color that could have easily passed for gold, even though the alloy is mostly copper with a bit of tin.

To modern eyes, that is not what we expect of bronze. It is a peculiar thing that, unlike other art media, our perception of bronze is based solely on antiquity. The fine art world, for example, lauds the restoration and cleaning of old oil paintings. Not so with bronze. Even our language supports this skewed view of the alloy. To have “bronzed skin” is to have spent many hours in the sun. No one, on the other hand, wants to be as sparkly as an engagement ring. That’s just silly.

What would otherwise be simple corrosion or rust is known as “patina” in the bronze world. Bronze sculptures that have been sitting around for hundreds of years all have a patina of brown and/or green and, for some odd reason, this oxidation is desirable for even the newest of bronze pieces.

Natural oxidation, however, takes eons. Enter chemical patinas. There are various ways of quickly producing a patina, but I used a traditional method for my project – ferric oxide applied on the heated piece, with a later application of colored buffing wax. What would otherwise have taken a century or more was accomplished in less than an hour.

Bronze has long been a popular sculpting medium, in part because the heated metal expands when in the mold, thus filling every detail, and because the same metal shrinks when cooling, making it easy to remove from the mold.

In antiquity, however, bronze was also a favorite material for producing military hardware. Hence, many ancient bronze sculptures were lost forever to invading armies, who melted down the bronze and re-cast it into cannons.

Two, however, can play that game. The equestrian monument of Ferdinando I de Medici in Florence, for example, is said to have been produced with Turkish cannons captured by the Knights of San Stefano. Stories like that are golden.

Friday, September 21, 2018

ArtPrize and the ArtCurmudgeon

Copyright © Edward Riojas

ArtPrize, it seems, is an ever-changing thing. Forget the official rules that change yearly. Forget the official boundaries that are ignored by the event itself.  Simply viewing the art entries can be a challenge, especially when venues change entirely.

One may expect, for example, to see some cutting edge pieces at the Kendall Gallery or the UICA, but Kendall has but one entry this year and it’s outside. The UICA, on the other hand, has apparently spread like a virus and is this year at multiple locations – except at the UICA.

Some venues may decide to limit the number of entries so that, in the case of DeVos Place Convention Center, an individual piece needing 150 feet of wall space can be accommodated. Other venues vanish altogether, while yet others add more space. While this makes for a very organic event, it can be slightly frustrating to patrons who may discover these changes on the fly when seriously pounding the pavement.

Being ever the helpful sort of curmudgeon that I am, what follows are a few pieces worth hunting down. They are stylistically all over the map. They may not make anyone’s top list, but if you want a little direction while wading neck-deep through mediocrity and welded, scrap-metal dragons [I know I am being redundant here], then check these out...

(Photo courtesy
Daniel Wurtzel’s “Air Fountain,” showing at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, will indeed make it to the top. [Well, maybe. At this writing the piece seems to be a no-show. See what I mean about change?] “AirFountain” is the sort of piece that is mesmerizingly simple, devoid of any controversy, and oozing with elegance. Check out a video of the Brooklyn-based artist’s piece when it was installed in the Copernicus Science Center in Warsaw.

(Photo courtesy
Eric Freitas’ “Twisted Twelve,” hosted by Divani/Gallery Divani, is a combination of precision machinery and disturbing perception all wrapped up in a series of unfortunate events. The working clock – well, sort of – makes no mention of Happy Hour.

(Photo courtesy
“Pacific Quilt,” by Sarah FitzSimons and shown at the GRAM, takes the concept of quilting and blows it out of the water. Using underwater topography and ocean currents, the artist shows what can happen when craft and concept collide.

(Photo courtesy
“Madonna Muerte” is just weird enough to make us want to look at it. That may not exactly be high praise, but in some corners that is high praise, indeed. It is showing at PaLatte Coffee & Art. Bob Doucette, the creator of the piece, is director of many children’s television shows, including PBS’s “Clifford’s Puppy Days.” Knowing that just makes “Madonna Muerte” all the more weird.

(Photo courtesy
John Krout’s “Mid-West Coast” uses a technique more often seen on boxcars and barrios and applies it to the sights of Holland, Michigan. The fresh take on landscape is being hosted by Grand Rapids Brewing Company.

Of course, this is not exactly a well-rounded list of all that you should see. I’m sure some artists may take umbrage that I didn’t include their piece, but then again I refrained from touting my own entry. If you can make the trip to downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the coming days, I’m sure you’ll find a piece that puts all these to shame, and plenty more that are simply, hmm, shameful.

Friday, September 14, 2018

An ArtPrize Retrospective

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Once upon a time, I refused to enter art competitions. But we must begin long before that time.

During my youth I entered a local art contest, The Festival of the Arts Visual Arts Competition. My two entries were rejected. Thinking those pieces were of undeniable merit, I scouted the resulting show to see what the judges considered worthy. I became disgruntled. I was, after all, a youth. A year passed.

The next year, I again entered two pieces. One was, in my estimation, certainly worthy of the judges. The other was quickly fashioned along trendy lines, closely mirroring the sort of thing seen in Art News. It was cutting edge, and I didn’t care for it.

True to form, the judges accepted the trendy piece, and rejected the other. I remained disgruntled. Another year passed.

When the contest returned the next year, I did not want to enter. At the last moment, however, I emptied a glass and metal frame of its contents, and stuffed trash behind the glass in a disgruntled sort of way. I gave it a nonsensical title, and entered it in the competition. Days passed.

My ugly piece, “Ibid, so what?” apparently was the stuff of which cutting edges are made. It took two awards, and the county bought it for a hideous sum. After that, I decided I would not enter art competitions ever again. Decades passed.

Then ArtPrize was born.

It took two years of badgering and shaming from colleagues, an old art teacher, and my own conscience before I decided to enter the fledgling art competition. I became hooked.

ArtPrize is the sort of thing one reviles and loves at the same time. It can be so annoying, yet no one wants it to go away. It can be horrendously ghastly. It can be exquisitely beautiful.

Above all, it demands much. Miniatures are decidedly unwelcome. Copious amounts of labor are enthusiastically embraced. Size matters. Patrons, who cannot possibly see every entry during the given time, don’t simply want a wow factor – they want to be knocked out of their socks, thrown barefoot on their backsides, and left completely dumbfounded.

Working with such expectations year after year is wearying, and takes its toll on even the most seasoned artist. I would be lying if I did not say ArtPrize has worn me thin. To that end, the organizers’ recent announcement that ArtPrize will become a biennial event came as a strange relief. And still I don’t want it to go away.

I thought it might be interesting to see the labor this competition has thus far managed to squeeze out of me. Below are my yearly entries, some of which slipped from labor-intensive into the insane...

“Owashtanong.” I did not like playing the Native American maiden card, especially with my first entry, so I pushed hard to be faithful to detail and the history of regional Ojibways. Tens of thousands of beads were included in the painting – each with its own shadow and highlight. And, no, it was not painted on velvet.

“Adoremus.” Among the comments this painting evoked was, “I don’t think religious artwork should be included in ArtPrize.” Troglodyte. Apparently, the fact that the Church single-handedly fostered fine art during the Dark Ages is no longer of consequence.

“Förtrollade Skogen.” I was definitely on a roll – if not with commanding size, then certainly with non-English titles. This Swedish-entitled piece left folks speechless – many didn’t even know what they were looking at.

“Ecce Homo.” I waffled seemingly every year between sacred pieces and the urge to create fanciful entries. This one demanded close consideration and, occasionally, tears.

“Under Slottet Bron.” I went through 10,000 business/voting cards and could have used a few thousand more at the venue that hosted me that year. The 13 feet-wide gargantuan had a perpetual audience. Many thought it would make a lovely headboard. Perhaps for a troll.

“Fridur.” Still no English title. Artists sometimes do the most daring things, like using Google to translate the Collect for Peace into Icelandic and slap it on a painting. I prayed that no one from Iceland would visit, but come they did.

“Ambrei As Potamiaena.” Finally, an English title, but it doesn’t even read like English. I strayed out of the 2-dimensional category and into the time-based category. Using a database of thousands of names of Christian martyrs, the names slowly “bled” down the frame and onto the floor.

“O That My Words Were Written.” Being noticeably smaller than previous entries, this year's piece is simplistic, but is still heavy with detail. “Heavy” is perhaps the operative word for the theme and treatment, as well.

After cranking out these paintings year after year, the idea of ArtPrize going on holiday for a year sounds so relaxing. Of course, images of the next entry are already swirling in my head. ArtPrize, it seems, will not go away after all.

The Art Curmudgeon, aka Edward Riojas, will be showing his piece, “O That My Words Were Written,” at Cornerstone Church - Heritage Hill Campus, 48 Lafayette Ave. SE, during ArtPrize. The venue hours are noon - 6 p.m. on Sunday, 5 p.m. - 8 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday, and noon - 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Ruminating in Church

"Apse Mosaic" [detail]. Masolina da Panicale. 12th Century A.D. (Church of San Clemente, Rome)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s good to ponder things in church. If everything was as expected and there was nothing new to learn, then surely we must be dead. That is why I rather enjoy the unexpected – even where the steadfast Church is concerned.

A few months ago I was meandering through the modest Haehn Museum at the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota and spotted an odd, little embroidery of a cross with deer. No, it wasn’t a symbol of St. Eustace or St. Hubert of Liege, and it certainly wasn’t on a bottle of Jägermeister, which strangely has, as its logo, a symbol of one of those saints [or both]. The embroidery was a pair of deer at the base of a cross.

I soon realized, however, that the cross and deer motif is not at all odd. The imagery has been used in Roman Catholicism for hundreds of years, and probably other areas of Christendom, as well. While it isn’t necessarily among the first images one would pick for a church sanctuary, it is certainly fitting. The deer – nearly always shown drinking from a stream – point directly to the opening verse of Psalm 42: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.”

Of all people, I suppose I should be the least surprised to find a ruminant in church. The “Te Deum Polyptic," which surrounds the sanctuary of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich., was created by my own hand, and it contains a small menagerie.

Supporting the textual phrase, “All the earth doth worship Thee,” is a vignette of all sorts of animals. Intentionally, many of them are “unclean.” There are swine and a praying mantis [see what I did there?]. Also included are bison and, to my recollection, a kudu, or some other ruminant. Had I known the liturgical connection with deer, however, I would have included one – with a very conspicuous tongue hanging out.

I will have a second chance to include a panting deer in an upcoming project. As a companion piece to an altarpiece I created for them a few years ago, Zion Lutheran Church, Wausau, Wis., has commissioned a set of paintings showing all of creation praising the Lord, including local flora and fauna. Yes, that means deer. No, that does not mean cheese.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Art in the Church Catholic

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I was raised in a Lutheran home. So was my mother. My father, however, was raised in a Roman Catholic home. It wasn’t until Dad returned from the war and met a spunky Lutheran gal, ten years his younger, that he began thinking perhaps Luther was on the right track. Four children later, and Dad was totally convinced. This is most certainly true.

That family connection to Roman Catholicism has caused me to be persnickety about what it means to be catholic. Like Luther, I’m very comfortable with being catholic. Rome, however, has no part of it. That is, I consider myself part of the unseen company of saints that make up THE Church – the Church Catholic – whether they be of the LCMS variety or not.

I get annoyed when folks, in relating some subject of adiaphora, work themselves into a lather and blurt out that something is “too catholic.” The same sentiment is sometimes applied to sacred art.

Where it often comes up is at the cross or in the lap of Mary. Folks get nervous when an image of Jesus Christ is depicted on the cross (Shouldn’t it be empty?!), and when Mary is shown wearing blue (That was an expensive color of fabric!), and things quickly devolve when a Latin phrase is embroidered on an altar cloth or when pastor shows up wearing (Gasp!) a chasuble. And tassels.

There ARE things that are distinctly Roman Catholic among the visible things in the sanctuary. If, for example, you spy paraments or vestments in a shade of blue lighter than what you ever remember in a Lutheran church, then chances are good that the Virgin Mary is being highlighted while her Son is taking a back seat. A conspicuous initial cap “M” is also another hint, as is a lily motif. (Which is why I shudder at many generic Easter bulletin covers!)

But images of Mary are not of themselves wrong. Context is, of course, key. Neither is there anything wrong with opulent decoration, providing it points in the right direction.

To be fair, myopia sometimes goes in both directions. I once had the opportunity to create art for a Roman Catholic confessional booth. It would have been a lovely piece, the local Monsignor seemed genuinely pleased with my portfolio, and he even came to my studio space to chat about the project. But the commission quickly evaporated, along with the Monsignor’s very existence, when he found out I was Lutheran. Perhaps I was TOO confessional.

Like the inside quip and its rejoinder in our family, “Is it heavy?,” “Then it’s expensive,” the reality seems that if something in the sanctuary is fancy, then it’s Roman Catholic. It occasionally feels true, but that’s just plain nonsense. the Pope doesn’t have a monopoly on gold brocade or Gothic architecture or Latin. If you still think so, then perhaps it’s time again for you to sing the Te Deum Laudamus. A capella.

Friday, August 24, 2018

What Was Left Behind

Engraving from a pamphlet showing the destruction of sacred art (iconoclasm) by Calvinist zealots. Circa 1525-1527.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

A recent article in Christianity Today urged a rather small audience with its title, “Christian Artists: Don’t Leave the Bible Behind.” The article was an interview by Jennifer Craft, who asked some questions of Jeremy Begbie, a Duke Divinity School theologian. The aim of the interview was to address “the mutually enriching relationship between faith and the arts.” The periodical’s audience is comprised primarily of Evangelical Christians.

Several people brought the article to my attention, but I was rather disappointed with the nebulous nature of the dialogue that was well-seasoned with highfalutin, artsy-fartsy verbiage. People with smarts sometimes speak that way. When digging into Begbie’s background, I discovered a list of credentials longer than my arm. Unfortunately, I also discovered his interest in ‘the arts’ is primarily on the musical side of things. So while his line of reasoning may well hover near the stratosphere, it means little down in the trenches where I work.

On the other hand, the fact that the subject is being discussed is probably newsworthy, especially in the generic Protestant camps of Christendom, where houses of worship are sanitary affairs, and where sacred art has been taboo for centuries. The same art that has for so long been a given within Orthodox and Roman circles, and which has been regaining steam among Lutherans, is still very much a puzzle among Protestants in general and Evangelicals in particular. They simply are not sure what to do with it.

While living in West Michigan, I occasionally meet artists that are products of the Calvinist-rich region. I will rejoin a small group this September for a special event at the GRAM (Grand Rapids Art Museum) – the common denominator being works on the theme of the Prodigal Son, which are part of the Gerbens Collection owned by Calvin College. A few of us artists produced pieces in the collection.

It is interesting to see how Reformed artists – running a parallel course with Evangelicals – struggle with sacred art in the context of their denominational beliefs. Because they have historically eschewed the symbolism and conventions of traditional sacred art, they often attempt to reinvent what our artistic forebears established eons ago, and often slip sideways in the process. A crucifix, for example, may be considered out-of-bounds, but a blob of color will do nicely if it can somehow represent the redemptive act of our Lord. Creativity may be enthusiastically celebrated, but finding The Creator in all of it takes effort.

The arts – specifically the visual arts – are being approached by Evangelicals with a kind of abandon that smacks of both new-found Christian freedom and aimlessness. That can become a problem with the Christian artist. It is at that moment that the title of the article makes sense, but the reality of it is that the urgency is a few hundred years late, thanks to history's iconoclastic zealots, who threw out sacred art [among other things] with the bath water. The title's colon should simply be dropped and the statement be allowed to stand, as it has, for centuries – Christian artists don’t leave the Bible behind.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Drawing Conclusions

Thumbnail drawing for
a commemorative logo

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Once upon a time I was a drawing major. Bearing that in mind, one would think that I would be a bit more protective of the myriads of drawings I still produce. I was painfully reminded of this recently, when for some inexplicable reason I destroyed a small set of preliminary drawings for a project. I then had to apologize, after the fact, to a would-be-client interested in buying one of those very drawings.

It is a sad fact that drawings are often treated as a means to an end. They are either the first dumping grounds for an idea, or else they are the final visualization of a composition before transferring to a painting or sculpture. Drawings most often are merely an artist’s editing tool, but they are more.

As high art, they can be exquisite things, with humble materials belying the work of a master. One need only peruse the drawings of Hans Holbein the Younger or Auguste Dominique Ingres to wonder why the artists even bothered with paint. Drawings needn’t be the poor cousins of other masterworks. Most often, however, they are treated as the household staff.

In apologizing for the destruction of my own work, I was also forced to accept the fact that the preliminary drawing was indeed stronger than its final execution. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last. There is a quality inherent in drawing that is sometimes missing in other artistic disciplines – the evidence of struggle within the artist’s mind. The marks that make up a drawing can show bold confidence, delicate sensitivity, or muddled indecision. They are at their best when marks create an exact impression without visually spelling things out. It becomes nearly impossible, at that point, to duplicate the drawing’s strength in a different medium, no matter how much more “noble” that medium.

Obviously, this is a bit hard to qualify, so instead of writing further chapters on the subject, I’ve decided to let you wander through a few of my preparatory drawings. They are from past works, as well as current and future projects. The drawings were either buried under other documents or were under glass or were under a blanket of dust. They sometimes show thoughts surrounding the image. At other times they show thinking beyond the image, and give a good indication of the more mundane and calculating places where an artist’s mind must also wander...

Conceptual drawings (and an apparently difficult math problem) for the frame of "Under Slottet Bron."

Conceptual drawing for frame of "Adoremus"

Frame design for "Madonna and Child," Christ Lutheran Church, Orland Park, Ill.

Preparatory drawing for "The Prodigal Son," The Gerbens Collection, Calvin College.
I only noticed at this writing that I had drawn an "Ace" playing card tucked into his belt.
That detail was deleted in the final painting.

Frame design for "Owashtanong," Private collection.

Preparatory drawing for a current Ecclesiastical Sewing project

Preparatory drawing for "Under Slottet Bron."

Preparatory drawing for a future Ecclesiastical Sewing project.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Bearing Crosses [In Mind]

Copyright © Edward Riojas

A cross is a cross is a cross. False.
Jerusalem Cross

There are hundreds of cross variations in existence. Some of them are ancient. Some have roots in heraldry. Others are relatively young. Yet others are so new that they’re still rattling around in some artist’s noggin. For as much as the first Christians generally avoided pictorial use of the cross on which our Savior died, it is certainly the most-used and most-varied symbol in Christendom.

But not all crosses are created equal. Some types were created along cultural or geographic lines. Others are specific to denominations or sects or movements. While many cross designs have identities that have remained through the years, a few have lost their original significance. But before you hunt willy-nilly for a “pretty” cross to plop into your newsletter or logo, it’s probably wise to hunt for its origins beforehand.

Cross of Lorraine

What follows are a few examples that should raise a flag or two where appropriateness is concerned...

The Jerusalem Cross
This is a specific cross that has been used with abandon in all corners of the Church, but its name should give a good hint that it may not necessarily apply to your neck of the woods. While it isn’t wrong per se to use it in Hoboken or Honolulu, it has been closely associated with Jerusalem since the Crusades. The five crosses have been used to indicate the five wounds of Christ, but the division caused by its central cross has also been variously interpreted as the Four Gospels or the traditional four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Papal Cross

The Cross of Lorraine (The Patriarchal Cross or Archiepiscopal Cross)
Some crosses have such tangled histories that it’s best to avoid them altogether. The Cross of Lorraine is one such animal. Its alternate use as the Patriarchal Cross is most often trumped by French claims to its use, including the Free French during WWII, earlier French groups seeking to regain territories, and even earlier by the House of Anjou. Of course, they fail to mention that its origins can be found in Hungary, and probably before that in  Byzantium. And, of course, the cross is also used to identify an Archbishop. The only real occasion one may use the Cross of Lorraine is apparently while eating an Oreo cookie, which is emblazoned with a variation of the cross. Go figure.

The Papal Cross
Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Coptic Crosses

Coptic Cross variations
I’ve included these simply because the Copts were the subject of last week’s post. Their crosses are varied and each is distinct in shape. Among the earliest forms are derivatives of the Egyptian ankh that have been repurposed as a Christian symbol. The reason for this cross-over is understandable – the ankh originally meant "life."
Huguenot Cross

Huguenot Cross
I ran across this gem while vacationing in Charleston, S.C., where dwindling Huguenot descendents rattle around the only independent French Huguenot Church in the U.S., which incidentally is on the Historic Register. In this quirky symbol created by persecuted French Calvinists, a Maltese Cross has been doctored up with a few doo-dads and a pendant of the Holy Spirit. It's strange that the Calvinists added French fleur-de-lis to the design, because the lily has roots in symbolizing the Virgin Mary. Oh, well.

St. Andrew’s Cross
You might rally around this cross if you wear a kilt and get hankerings for haggis, but its shape really is the type of cross on which St. Andrew traditionally met his martyrdom. How such a Christian symbol ever got associated with an ancient golf institution is beyond me, but given the occasional misuse of other crosses, it's probably par for the course.

St. Andrew's Cross