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

Friday, August 3, 2018

Wearing Christianity On One’s Sleeve

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Some things are undeniable.

There are plenty of things in this life that can be avoided and ignored and sidestepped. Many are often prickly and bothersome and annoying. We don’t even know how we should feel when confronted by some of them, but we have a hunch they are somehow wrong. Like elephants in the room, we try to talk past them and pretend they aren’t there. Once in a great while, however, the very things that would otherwise cause us consternation and perplexity force us to pay very close attention.

I was recently doing a bit of research for an upcoming project and ran across – for a second time – an item that was initially brought to my attention by fellow Lutheran artist, Tanya Saueressig Nevin, who also happens to be a tattoo artist: The subject of Coptic tattoos.

It is precisely at this point that many will begin to feel squeamish and stop reading – not because the thought of getting a tattoo is repulsive, but because the thought of ANYone getting a tattoo is repulsive. It says so in the Bible. Someplace.

Typical Coptic wrist tattoo.

Of course, if we are to adhere to Levitical laws with as much vehemence as some, then a great deal of us would have been stoned ages ago. Likewise, our church larders would be overflowing with tithed spices instead of bland ones necessary for casseroles and Jell-O salad. No such luck. As a testament to our own sinfulness, we tend to bring out obscure laws when they suit us and conveniently forget obvious ones when they don’t.

And then the Copts come along.

Originally, the term Copt – or “Qubt” – was a Greek term given to a culturally-distinct segment of the Egyptian population. Later, Arabic invaders used the term to designate both the Coptic culture and their religion, which was a variation of Christian Orthodoxy. Through the centuries, the Copts managed to maintain both culture and Christianity, much to the chagrin of their Muslim neighbors. The beheading of Coptic Christians in 2015 by Muslims is indicative of the kind of persecution they suffer to this day.
Tigrayan girl with simple Coptic tattoo on her forehead
(Photo courtesy of

For nearly 700 years, however, the Copts have embraced a peculiar tradition that is sometimes bothersome to fellow Christians and is outright offensive to Muslims – Christian tattooing. While it isn't the rule, it is common enough to take note. Often a small cross is tattooed on the wrist of children shortly after Baptism, echoing the wounds of Christ. Women sometimes have a cross tattooed on their foreheads. Occasionally, men sport the same. The tattoos may be very simple, or simply in-your-face.

Tattooing has also become associated with making pilgrimages to Jerusalem. A tattoo from a small range of traditional designs may be obtained in Jerusalem as both proof of the pilgrimage and as a personal reflection on the pain which our Lord suffered. One Coptic family, the Razzouks, has been providing tattooing services in Jerusalem since they moved there – during the Crusades. Such is the depth of tradition.

Tigrayan man with Coptic tattoo on his forehead
(Photo courtesy of

There are possible influences that may have helped create this tradition. The Roman custom of tattooing the foreheads of slaves might have seeped into the culture and may have redefined the Copts as being “slaves of Christ.” There are also accounts of Muslims marking Christians who refused to convert to Islam. Such an act might have caused some to cut to the chase and get a proper mark of distinction beforehand.

It is extremely hard for Westerners in general and American Christians in particular to wrap our brains around such a tradition. It is the sort of thing that conflicts with what our mothers often warned us. It is the kind of thing that would have caused angst from our fathers. It can still be a source of disapproval within our households, and within the household of Believers. While existing in a world surrounded by Muslims, however, displaying a cross in such manner shouts a very clear message that surely must resonate with even the undecorated among us: In the face of horrible persecution, some Christians will not, and indeed cannot, deny their Savior.