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.