Friday, July 27, 2018

About That Cross

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I can say with great certainty that nearly every one of you has seen a cross like the one shown. It is most often made of brass, and either sits on an altar or, in a variation, hangs near the chancel. With almost as much certainty, my guess is that most of you don’t have a clue about the little emblem at its center.

At first blush my words seem harsh, but they nod to a nagging fact within Christendom: We are quickly loosing an understanding of symbolic things which have served as visual shorthand for the basic truths we confess. Without launching into a massive explanation [that will eventually manifest itself in a book on Christian symbolism], I think it best to focus on this one, simple item with which we are all familiar.

Abbreviations have, since the early Church, played a part in liturgical visuals. Chi-rhos and Chi-Iotas and “INRI,” along with a long list of other abbreviations, point to artists’ laziness in avoiding to spell out everything. Hand-lettering is, after all, tedious work. In emperor Constantine’s case, the Chi-rho acted as a sort of identifying logo for his troops, so we can forgive him. Besides, he was the emperor.

By the Middle Ages, many abbreviations – or monograms – had been developed to identify Jesus Christ. Among them was IHS and the similar IHC. The short story is that it is the Latinized first three letters of the Greek word for Jesus, using either an “S” or “C” per its lunate or final form, and based on pre-17th century Latin in which the “I” was used before the introduction of “J.” Okay, that wasn’t so short.

Within the chapters of the longer story are different meanings that were applied, after the fact, by various folks. To underscore my point of losing an understanding, the abbreviations became erroneously interpreted as "Jesus Hominum [Hierosolymae] Salvator" (“Jesus, the Savior of men”), “In Hoc Signo [Vinces]” (”In this sign you will conquer”),  “Jesus Hierosolyma Salvator” (”Jesus, the Savior of Jerusalem), and later, the Anglicanized “In His Service.” Quacks.

The interesting thing about early Greek abbreviations is that, instead of using periods, a line was often placed above the letters. In some Medieval forms, when lower case characters were used, this line created a conspicuous cross when intersecting the ascending leg of the “h.” This was sometimes carried through to upper case variations, in which a cross was either fused to the middle of the “H” or was interwoven with the whole monogram.

Of course, it will never replace a corpus on a crucifix, which forces us to acknowledge our Savior’s ultimate act of love for us. This familiar brass item, on the other hand, simply shows Jesus on the cross.

Friday, July 20, 2018


Copyright © Edward Riojas

During the past year or so I’ve come into possession of a few books that are well worth mentioning. A few are signed copies. For the most part, I have been involved with their development in varying degrees. One book is an exception, but it is so exceptional that it, too, is worth mentioning. While this may be considered a sort of book fair, it’s primarily a way to get a peek into some of my projects – past, present, and future...

A while ago I was commissioned to create the cover art for Katie Schuremann’s second edition of “He Remembers The Barren” (Emmanuel Press). It was an honor to take on the project, but was made even more special when the original painting ended up in Katie Schuremann’s private collection.

I also did the cover art for Rev. Tyrel Bramwell’s “The Gift  and the Defender” (Grail Quest Books) – Book 1 in The Lumen Legends Series. I’m currently working on a group of illustrations for an unrelated Bramwell book.

Rev. Gaven Mize is another Lutheran pastor/author. He and his wife, Ashlee, co-authored “God Loves Me Such That He Would Give” (Grail Quest Books), and I joined the children’s book project in the role of illustrator.

St. Paul’s Music Conservatory of Council Bluffs, Iowa, is an ambitious project undertaken by Rev. Nathan Sherrill, Rev. Jim Frank, and others, with a multifaceted approach to music education. As part of the project, a music book, "Jesus, Ground of Faith" (St. Paul’s Music Conservatory) was produced that necessitated my illustrative talents. The first book was quickly published after the conservatory’s inception, and a second book is in the works.

I had no involvement, of course, in Joseph Braun’s “Praktische Paramenten Kunde: Winke Für Die Anfertigung Und Verzierung Der Paramente” (Herder & Co.) I’m old, but I’m not THAT old. This 1920s-vintage book was a generous gift from Ecclesiastical Sewing’s Carrie Roberts. The book will, however, find its way into my future work, and bits and pieces of the designs contained within have already been resurrected as liturgical embroideries.

Friday, July 13, 2018

What Can Be Done

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It is one thing to take potshots at ill-conceived sanctuaries and wax nostalgic over churches that have long since been demolished. It is quite another to make sensible artistic suggestions for churches that were never blessed with liturgical art or comeliness in the first place.

My two previous posts have pointed out some winners and losers in Christendom, and its’ time for me to give some practical advice for those who might have a vague interest in doing something – anything – to visually improve the sanctuary. Some pastors know exactly what they want when seeking out my talents. Others are more reserved and prefer suggestions. There is no right or wrong way to approach a liturgical artist, so I try to listen as much as possible to what is – and what isn’t – said.

Among the things that have strong influence on any art project are the building’s architecture, permanent accoutrements, and, yes, mundane things like thermostats, heating vents, and light switches. There can be no forcing a Renaissance fresco into a place where it doesn’t belong. Neither should a cutting-edge, artsy-fartsy piece be installed in a sanctuary with Gothic tracery. The best compliment I can receive is that the finished piece looks as if it was always there; that it was meant to be there.

To give some concrete ideas of what can be done, I've gathered a few photos of bland sanctuaries. I’ve tried to steer clear of Lutheran churches, so some of the sanctuaries have major issues even before artistic considerations can be made. You’ll just have to ignore those things, and try to imagine the blue shapes being filled with Riojas originals...

A chancel area with Romanesque arches and not much adornment easily lends itself to possibilities. Flanking pieces on either side of a central window or altarpiece can be filled with angels and/or favorite saints. If hymn boards are not commanding the walls immediately outside of the chancel, artwork can be hung there in different configurations. Often the Font is placed to the right of the chancel opening, making an obvious spot for a Baptismal-themed piece and providing good reason to remove that annoying projection screen.

The sanctuary front isn’t the only place where art might be added. Traditionally, angels are placed near the rear exit of the church as a reminder of heavenly protection beyond the Divine Service. In similar manner,  areas between windows can sometimes accommodate artwork, echoing architecture and enhancing theological themes.

Of course, you are probably very blessed if your church has Romanesque features. Mod-squad churches come with their own set of problems – and possibilities. Once you rip out that hideous purple carpet, pull down those chandeliers, and get over the stigma of being labeled San Liberace of the Hills, perhaps a commission for liturgical art is in order. Following architectural lines can help ease artwork into odd spaces and make it work. This is one case in which I might stick my neck out and suggest ridding the chancel wall of the three crosses, which are too-widely spaced and symbolically weak. (In my book, a trio of crosses doesn’t confess much, and the visual weight falls on the two malefactors instead of the One Who died for all.)

Timing is everything. Before Mr. Twinklebothom plunks down serious cash for projection screens in all the obvious places, consider something tastefully simple like a nice section of Scripture painted directly on the wall. It won’t detract from the goofy architecture and it will certainly look like the architect planned it that way. And, if you’re quick about it, you can even consider a small piece on either side – one to go with the Baptismal Font, and one to go with the table you’ll need to hold the unconsecrated bread and wine. Plus, you’ll have the perfect reason to throw that praise band junk to the curb.