Friday, May 25, 2018

Dates Without Hyphens

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Grief does not forget us.

Folks will be making visits to the cemetery this weekend – if grilling can be put on hold for a few minutes. Cemeteries will be decked out with flags and flowers for Memorial Day.

When visiting other parts of the U.S., I enjoy the occasional side trip to a cemetery if there is an old one in the vicinity. Doing so is both an alternate way to study history and a back window into the more poignant parts of humanity. I typically gravitate toward the older, weather-worn tombstones that speak in the king’s English or sport lichen-covered details. Towering monuments don’t much interest me, but the tiniest do. Sometimes the grave markers are so small that one needs to push down the surrounding grass to properly read the engraved text.

Many of the smallest gravestones date from 1918, when a flu epidemic spread throughout the U.S. Whether dating from that particular epidemic or from any other year, it is heartbreaking to find a tombstone with only one date. A newborn whose life was cut short seems the worst kind of grief to bear.

In spite of advances in medicine and the modern means to fight against epidemics, we are still susceptible to death. We will always be, this side of heaven. So, too, the smallest of our children.

We are encouraged on Memorial Day to honor the war dead. Beyond the national holiday, we are also encouraged to remember the widow and the fatherless. It is also good to remember those who have lost newborns and those who have delivered stillborn babies. Their grief is no less than that of mothers who replaced a service banner’s blue star with a gold one. When you visit the graves of those great heroes who gave their lives in the service of their country, remember also the least of our countrymen whose time came far too soon.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Sanctuary’s Image

Detail of [soon to be installed] "Corpus"
Edward Riojas 2018.
(Our Savior Lutheran Church,
Pagosa Springs, Colo.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The church sanctuary is just that – a haven. It is a place in which the cares of the world hold little sway, and the blessings of the Lord come to us. The older I get, the more I understand the Psalmist when he wrote, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.”

But sanctuaries differ visually from one another. Sometimes big differences aren’t all that intentional – being dictated by taste and architecture. At other times, however, there is strong intent that comes with denominational territory.

The next time you visit an Eastern Orthodox church, for example, see how many sculpted pieces you can find in the sanctuary. Chances are the church will be wonderfully elaborate, with plenty of paintings, but three-dimensional images will be very hard to come by.

The Second Council of Nicaea of 787 effectively eliminated sculpted pieces from Orthodox sanctuaries by re-instituting the veneration of icons. During the previous decades, the use of any religious image – sculpted or otherwise – followed the fickle winds of change buffeting between those who saw any sanctuary image as sacrilegious and those who viewed the same as sacrosanct. Depending on what opinion one held during the Iconoclastic Controversies, lives and livelihood were often forfeited.

Sculptures were ultimately relegated to obscurity in Orthodoxy because they could not convey in three dimensions what the two-dimensional icons were intended to do – namely, portray a “window into heaven” by means of strange perspective, peculiar imagery, and an unbending adherence to tradition. So much weight was given to icons that sculpture was deemed unnecessary, and custom eventually made them inconsequential.

The Roman Catholic church officially agreed with the cannons of the Second Council of Nicaea, but customs of the Western Church allowed sculpture to remain on a par with two-dimensional images. Rome also held a more moderate view on the East’s strict adherence to the traditions and veneration of icons.

Lutherans usually take a different tack on sanctuary imagery. Veneration is non-existent, excepting, perhaps, a few on the outer fringes of Lutheranism. Where artwork is present it is instead seen as a great teaching tool and a reminder of all that the Lord has done for us. The scarcity of artwork that may be evident in Lutheran churches is often due to budget constraints, lingering effects of Pietism, and long-running acceptance of artwork’s absence in the church, but it is not based on an iconoclastic view.

The Second Council of Nicaea also affected those in the Calvinist camp, but in a negative way. John Calvin rejected the cannons of the Council and reverted to the position of the iconoclasts. Viewing the images as “graven” and therefore sacrilegious, Calvin joined with fellow reformers Zwingli and Karlstadt in urging the removal of artwork from sanctuaries. Some sanctuaries were forcibly gutted by rioting rabble. Luther was most displeased by the antics. To this day, many church bodies with Calvinistic roots have very little, if any, artwork in their sanctuaries.

Strangely, the total cleansing of church sanctuaries has left Calvinistic denominations with a peculiar dilemma. In doing away with images that afford focus on and remembrance of our Lord, parishioners are forced to focus not on a cross or an image of our Savior, but on a preacher; a human, that is front and center. That, arguably, is a much greater sacrilege within the sanctuary.

Friday, May 11, 2018

God’s Mom

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s Mothers Day weekend, and folks are working themselves up in a lather to properly express some gratitude for their mothers on this one holiday, as if every other day of the year isn’t quite worthy of a nod of appreciation. Like our moms often told us: You know better.

There is one mother, however, that can stand a bit taller where pride in her offspring is concerned, and that is Mary, the mother of our Lord. The mystery of the Holy Incarnation is beyond comprehension. The how’s and why’s of a human mother giving birth to her Lord and ours is nothing around which we can wrap our brains. And yet we try.
"Pietà" Michelangelo. 1498-1499.
(St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City)

Images of Mary are so varied that they serve as proof of man’s fervent desire – and gross inability – to grasp the mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord. Sensible Christians should give respect to the mother of our Lord, for as the angel Gabriel said, she is "Blessed among women." Denominational differences, however, become strong where Mary is concerned. Even within the Lutheran sphere there are strong opinions, depending at which point in Luther’s life doctrinal claims are based. Others, however, prefer to insult our intelligence by going beyond what is sensible, and supplementing what Holy Scripture refuses to tell us. If opinions of Mary vary as much within Christendom, how much more the visualizations of those beliefs!

Among the most austere representations of Mary is one of the most famously-gorgeous – Michelangelo’s “Pietà” in St. Peter’s Basilica. In spite of a High Renaissance approach filled with voluminous fabric and delicately rendered forms, Mary is decidedly lacking in symbolic references. Whether intentional or not, Michelangelo deftly side-stepped the nearly-obligatory halo, although the folds of her head drapery subtly suggest one. The artist even avoided using the color blue [indicating purity] simply by adhering to the Renaissance misconception that Classical sculptures of Greece and Rome were not polychromed. Of course, there is plenty in Michelangelo’s masterpiece with which hard line devotees can take umbrage – the utter lack of symbolism and Marian adoration being chief among them.
"Virgin of Paris"
Anonymous. 14th Century.
(Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris)

Another example from the Northern Renaissance shows a far different Mary. The “Virgin of Paris,” housed in the Notre-Dame Cathedral, shows Mary as Queen of Heaven. The Marian theme takes cues from somewhat vague imagery in the Book of Revelation and runs with it. The crown is truly regal. So is her garment, being hemmed with jewelled embroidery. Mary holds a single lily, a symbol with which she is closely associated.

The figure of Christ, on the other hand, is almost an afterthought. He wears no crown. A royal orb signifying His rule over the world and the cosmos lacks the usual cross, making it seem like a child’s plaything instead of a symbol of the Lord’s sovereignty. The Marian slip shows, and the scales are embarrassingly tipped toward the creature and not the Creator.

If Jesus Christ is thus allowed to become subservient and peripheral, then surely He can be discounted altogether. Such is the natural progression where the cult of Mary reigns. When allowed to run rampant, images of Mary lean toward schmaltzy ‘sacred heart’ icons of questionable meaning. Representations of Our Lady of Guadalupe fit snugly in this category. Building a case on visions from a former believer in the Aztec religion is highly suspect, and creating an original image – referred to as the “tilma” – by the same dubiously-miraculous manner is just plain dangerous.
"Tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe"
Anonymous. 1531.
(Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe,
Tepeyak Hill, Mexico City)

The tilma image is of Mary – sans Jesus – in an attitude of devotion, and surrounded by a mandorla – a sort of halo encompassing her entire body. She is sometimes shown wearing a crown. (There is considerable debate surrounding the crown – or lack thereof – in earliest ‘Guadalupe’ images.) One ingredient that is always present in this Marian form is the crescent moon on which she stands. This is again a reference to the passage in Revelation.

What is not so obvious to modern eyes is the same image seen through Aztec lenses. While “the mother of our Lord” and “the mother of God” are innocuous terms used within Christendom to speak of Mary, the Aztecs worshipped Tonantzin, “the mother of the gods” – literally and affectionately, “our mother.” The moon, in the Aztec religion, was also identified with this deity.

Some may laud Juan Diego for his visions that initiated the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but Juan’s Aztec surname, Cuouhtlatoatzin, thinly veils a far different reality: His visions occurred at Tepeyak, the site of the Aztec temple to Tonantzin. It may seem that the New World fully embraced Mary, the mother of our Lord, even using her image as a rallying point for national pride and military might. Those early visions, however, were often viewed in a different light, and it took great pains for the Roman Catholic clergy to finally stay locals from referring to Mary as “Tonantzin.”

Friday, May 4, 2018

Church Eye Candy

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Church, of course, is not the building. Only in the smallest sense of the word do bricks and mortar come to mind. Today, however, we will give our eyes a bit of inspiration by way of those humble materials.

Any art survey course worth its weight will expose students to the “A” list of cathedrals across the globe. Church facades with names like Notre Dame, Haggia Sophia and Sainte-Chapelle, and cathedrals in Cologne, Salisbury, and Milan are sure to come up. Even the goofier designs of Le Corbusier and Antonio Gaudi are likely to be mentioned. But there are other church buildings – worthy in their own strange right – that might manage the “B” list or some other catalog far down the alphabet, and those are for today’s consideration.

For starters, we go to Reykjavík, Iceland, and look at the Hallgrímskirkya. Modest it is not. One might snicker over its claim to fame as the tallest church in Iceland – especially after wondering whether the frigid country could even support two churches. But in an effort to out-do the Roman Catholic cathedral located in the same city, the Lutheran Hallgrímskirkya was sent skyward at 244 feet. It’s facade is intended to mimic the snow-covered mountains of the landscape.

Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavík, Iceland

If big isn’t your thing, then perhaps a short visit to the little country of Luxembourg to see the diminutive Quirinus Chapel is in order. Originally a pagan site, the caves were given walls, a roof, and bell towers. It has been a Christian sanctuary since the 11th century, and for those planning a visit, the church is [ahem] just off the road.

Quirinus Chapel, Luxembourg.

Not to be out-done by Luxembourg, Germany dug its own little church out of a mountain. Technically, Felsenkirche, located in the town of Idar-Oberstein, was built on a natural ledge of a cliff. It has served as a sanctuary for worshippers since the late 1400s.

Felsenkirche, Idar-Oberstein, Germany

Meanwhile in the Dominican Republic, architects have taken things into their own hands. Cumbersome in both name and materials, the Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia is a gargantuan oddity that is reminiscent of the St. Louis arch and a MacDonald’s restaurant on drugs. It’s amazing what one can do with a vision of the Virgin Mary and a few bags of concrete.

Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia, Higüey, Dominican Republic.

As long as we’re on this side of the pond, we might as well take a hop, skip, and a jump into Colombia to see the Las Lajas Sanctuary. If the Hogwarts crowd wasn’t so much into wizardry, this is where they’d all go to church. If you happen to visit the shrine, however, Tuesdays are popular for pickup games of Quidditch.

Las Lajas Sanctuary, Nariño, Colombia.

If you’re into mega churches, then here you go. The Cathedral of Maringá in Brazil will also do the trick if you’re into large grain bins and rocket assembly buildings. I won’t mention its obvious nod to a dunce cap. I simply won’t.

Cathedral of Maringá, Maringá, Brazil.

Let’s wrap things up with another Lutheran church – this time in Copenhagen. Grundtvig’s Kirke is imposing and brutish and looming. And we can’t stop looking at it. The facade takes all its cues from traditional cathedral floor plans and almost lapses into the Gothic realm. Almost. This is a rare example of Expressionist architecture, and every detail has been pumped with visual steroids. If churches went to the gym, this is the one that would grunt as it dropped 400 lbs. of free weights on the floor. But the church isn’t all doom and gloom. The congregation even has a children’s theater group in which participants “perform cheerful games.” They meet in the crypt.

Grundtvig's Kirke, Copenhagen, Denmark.