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.

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