Friday, February 22, 2019

The Crowned Woman

Sculptures of "The Church," left, and
"The Synagogue.," right.  c. 1230.
(Strasbourg Cathedral, Strasbourg, France.
Originals are housed in the
Musée de l'Oeuvre Notre-Dame, Strasbourg) 

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Grand Dame of the Christian Church may not be who you think.

One of many symbols for the Christian Church is the Crowned Woman, but there are at least two inherent problems which have forced it to be rarely depicted. This is a bit odd, given the number of times it is referred to, not only throughout history, but also in Holy Scripture itself.

Ephesians 5, among other passages, describes the Church as Christ’s Bride. He presents “the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” If Christ does the presenting, it stands to reason that it will go well beyond our usual notion of a blushing bride. She is radiant. She is regal. Hence, the Church has sometimes been depicted as a Crowned Woman.

During the Middle Ages, this notion was expanded. In the Strasbourg Cathedral, for example, the Crowned Lady appears, holding a Chalice and a cross-topped staff. Countering her presence is a symbol of the Synagogue – a blindfolded, stumbling woman. In some instances, the Synagogue is shown with a crown slipping off her head.

Problems, however, arose in the visuals of Roman Catholicism. When Mary, the Mother of our Lord, became prominent, she was often shown wearing a crown. Sometimes she was shown without the Infant Christ, creating confusion with the Crowned Woman. As if confusion wasn’t enough, the idiotic notion that nuns are somehow mystically betrothed to Christ was thrown into the mix.

There is another inherent problem in depicting the Church as the Bride of Christ: What does she look like? The usual visual interpretation of her is a woman of beauty. She is, after all, “without blemish,” according to the Word. I am pulled, however, to the prophecy contained in the Book of Hosea. Painting Israel as a whore-wife named Gomer is pretty harsh, but Biblically clear. The case can be made that the Church parallels Israel in the same way – we are not always the picture of beauty. The world, in fact, takes pleasure in rubbing our noses in that fact. But Hosea was no ordinary husband, and neither is Christ.

It is difficult to show a Crowned Woman with beauty, when we know the real complexion is decidedly different. We may even join, unawares, in the self-deprecating comment, “I can’t, for the life of me, understand what He sees in Her!”  We are, however, not the Groom.The Lord will show mercy on whom He may. For His life alone, given and shed for Her sake, Christ sees everything in His Bride, the Church.

Friday, February 15, 2019

“You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Unless you have been living under a rock, it’s hard to ignore the deterioration of society. Memes and links posted on social media are laden with the latest shockers of humanity at its worst. Late-term abortion, gender denial, socialism, and the overarching lack of ethics, logic, and common sense all demand our attention. It’s so bad that annoying cat videos have become a welcome relief.

The constant attacks on our society have grown into a very real monster, and the fear is palpable. We wonder how such a thing could have gotten so large and out of control. We were brought up in Christian households. We tried to do the right things. We lived as law-abiding citizens, craving not much more than apple pie and our team in the World Series. We assumed that even the non-believers had the common decency to mirror us. We now watch, wide-eyed, as this menace slowly circles about us. We wonder how this happened; how to escape it; how to stop it.

One of the earliest Christian symbols for the Church was a boat. In an obvious reference to the events surrounding Christ Jesus calming the storm, a simple fishing boat surpassed an earlier symbol of the much larger ark as a common identifier of the whole Christian Church. This boat had a single mast and a single sail.

Other early symbols of the Church, such as the Rock and the City on a hill, used bulk and strength in their designs. The tempests of the world could rage all they wanted, but the Rock would not be moved, and the City on a hill would be a brilliant light to all. Not so the Boat.

The Church, as a Boat, would be thrown about the sea of life, and waves would threaten Her. Monsters would circle Her. Like the disciples riding out the storm, we wonder. We wonder what will happen. We wonder how things have gotten to this point. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we sometimes wonder why God is sleeping.

It is very easy, as Christians, to stand in the shoes of “Jaws” character, Chief Brody, and suddenly feel that the Boat is totally insufficient and vulnerable and inconsequential. It is then that Holy Scripture gently reminds us in 1 Peter 4:12, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” And again in 2 Corinthians 12: 9a, ““My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.””

It is wise that my artistic forebears chose a simple fishing boat as a symbol for the Church, and not a Roman galley or some other massive battleship. Yes, the Church will get assaulted by all manner of worldly storms, and it may seem Her hull is too thin; Her sail is too small; Her size is of little consequence. Our Lord, however, quietly abides with us, as He ever will. That is sufficient for us, and infinitely more.

Friday, February 8, 2019

On F.R. Webber

“The violent revulsions of the Puritans are very much on the wane, and ”the Churches” are reaching a stage where it is once more possible to spell Bible with a Large B, and Heaven with an upper-case H without bringing upon one the charges of ritualism; when a true altar of ample architectural scale, a chancel of comfortable depth, even crosses, candle-sticks, clerical vestments, surpliced choirs, absolution, and the sign of the cross in the benediction are not looked upon as superstition.”  – F.R. Webber, “Church Symbolism,” July, 1927
Miniscule initials from a book plate of symbols.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Unless you are very familiar with the corners of Lutheran history, the name Frederick Roth Webber won’t jog your memory one bit. Chances are, however, you are familiar with some of his work.

F.R. Webber was ordained during the summer of 1914, and began serving mission congregations in Wisconsin. Four years later he accepted a call to Faith Lutheran Church, Cleveland, Ohio, after being colloquized into the Missouri Synod. He served in Cleveland until 1937.

While I am sure he was a faithful pastor and rightly administered the Sacraments, Webber became known for work outside of his pastoral duties. He had a strong interest in architecture, and sat on an Architectural Committee for the English District of the LCMS. Webber wrote regular articles on church architecture, urging congregations to turn away from boxy structures to embrace older, confessional designs. He became known, however, for yet another discipline.

F.R. Webber’s book, “Church Symbolism,” was to become the one literary work, among other books and publications he wrote, that became synonymous with his name. It is a tome filled with useful images and concise information, and is well-seasoned with pithy admonitions. The stuff his book contains is NOT peripheral piffle.

Reading his words sometimes even elicits a snicker. When addressing the Calvinists’ aversion to the title “Saint,” for example, he nearly chastises them for taking St. Patrick's Day off from work and for living in places like St. Louis and San Antonio.

On the other hand, he chastises fellow Lutherans for thoughtlessly putting a symbol of the Reformer next to symbols of the Holy Trinity. He is very keen that artwork and architecture and symbolism confess the Truths we hold dear, but he is just as adamant that we confess it clearly.

The other day I received my 1927 edition of “Church Symbolism,” along with another vintage book on symbolism. The generous gift will be a great help in researching and conceptualizing embroidery designs for Ecclesiastical Sewing.

Upon opening the book, I immediately recognized Webber’s drawings. While they are recreations of eons-old symbols, Webber consolidated them from various sources and applied his own talented hand to them.

Webber let his readers know that some ancient symbols were eliminated from the collection. In his preface to the book, he explained, “ We do not believe in dragons and salamanders, nor do we have the temerity to assert that the quaint explanations given in olden times to certain symbols will stand the test of strict Scriptual exegesis.”

Something in his tone feels very familiar. One could say that I grew up with F.R. Webber. Perhaps you can say the same. His drawings appear in the 1970 revised edition of “Catechetical Helps” (CPH) and in altered form in the 1965 revised “Luther’s Small Catechism” (CPH).

Friday, February 1, 2019

A New Look at an Old Prayer

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The “Flood Prayer” wasn’t always in our hymnals. Throughout most of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod’s history, in fact, it simply wasn’t there. Luther wrote the prayer as an addition to the Baptismal Rite as he removed other parts of less consequence, such as the blessing of the font. The Lutheran Service Book brought back Luther’s Flood Prayer and gave it prominence in the rite.

Last year I was commissioned to create a Baptismal triptych based on this prayer. The actual painting has been completed, but the piece still needs varnishing and construction of a frame. When finished, the triptych will hang behind the Baptismal font at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Hankinson, N.D.

Like the prayer, imagery contained in the piece doesn’t follow a linear train of thought. The Baptismal prayer pulls together events which, to the world, may seem incongruous and out of sync; the Baptism of our Lord, the Flood, and the crossing of the Red Sea are not, on the surface at least, related at all. In similar fashion, I’ve layered symbolism that isn’t necessarily expected. In both the triptych and the prayer itself, however, it all is very intentional.

In the left panel, a conspicuous cross serves as a prow for the ark, even as the Church is sometimes referred to as The Ark. In the shadows beneath a scroll which bears the words of the prayer, skulls and rotting corpses point to the utter destruction wrought by the Flood, along with sin’s destruction given in Holy Baptism.

The central panel offers a view typical of many depictions of the Lord’s Baptism in the Jordan River. In a nod to Orthodox imagery, an adoring angel is also included. So too, distant trees, as representatives of all of creation, bow to the image of Christ. In the shadows, however, shadowy forms again lurk. This time a serpent coils at the unseen feet of Christ, who crushes its head.

The right hand panel fuses imagery in the crossing of the Red Sea. A set of three steps serve as an entrance into the sea, and the frightened Israelite throng crosses through, knowing they are pursued by forces greater than they. The natural elements, however, bow to the omnipotent power of the Lord, evidenced in piled up water and a consuming pillar of fire and smoke that bears not only a burning bush, but also the Name “YHWH.”

The idea that Holy Baptism is just a quaint old tradition or some kind of dedication of cooing newborns is soundly refuted not only by the pointed visuals, but also by Holy Scripture, to which the visuals point. It is well that Luther’s Flood Prayer has been reintroduced into the Baptismal Rite, for it points not only to the utter destruction of the Old Adam and our own sins, but it also points to the forgiveness and Salvation which the sacrament gives to all who are Baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Rough photo-composite of the unfinished "Baptismal Triptych."
(The scrolls, in reality, are of equal size and are in line horizontally, as are the horizons themselves.)
Copyright © Edward Riojas. No portion of image may be reproduced.