Friday, July 26, 2019

With Angels and Archangels

Detail of 'Michael Contending,' by Edward Riojas (Copyright © Edward Riojas. Image may not be reproduced.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The back-story begs to be told.

In the opening verses of his letter to fellow believers, Jude writes about the judgment of false teachers. He makes a case for the sovereignty of God and the presumptions of men, and in so doing casually mentions an odd event in the history of God’s chosen people.
“Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. Woe to them! ...” (Jude 1:8-11a)
In a single sentence, surely the reader must have nearly lost Jude’s point. The back-story of Michael contending with the devil is one thing, but fighting over the body of Moses magnifies the strangeness of the event. The reader thinks, "Wait. What?!"

What is not revealed in this New Testament book is that God Himself buried the body of Moses, and no one knew where that was. (Deut. 34:1-6) It is clear, however, that the old Serpent wanted the body for some nefarious purpose, and the Archangel Michael was called to action. This is the setting of my painting, “The Archangel Michael Contending With The Devil Over The Body Of Moses.” (Yes, it’s a long-winded title, but there is no better way to say it.)

This is such an odd subject for a sacred painting that I doubted another artist had done anything with it. I was wrong. While it does take a little hunting, there are a few examples out there. Each of them is a slightly different interpretation of what might have taken place. Some of those examples look like a bad day at the debate club, with little action other than some finger-pointing.
"The Archangel Michael Contending
With The Devil Over The Body Of Moses"
2019. Edward Riojas. Oil on panel.
(Copyright © Edward Riojas.
Image may not be reproduced.) 

Because Holy Scripture does not describe angels with the schmaltzy, Hallmark pattern of flaxen-haired damsels, I went with the model of a warring angel. Michael isn’t just arguing with the devil – the archangel is giving his nemesis a good thrashing. The devil cowers in darkness like a cockroach and, like a cockroach, he simply won’t give up. His hand defiantly points to himself.

Michael, however, points to the glow of heaven. Knowing neither a personal rebuke nor a judgment are his to give, Michael appeals to heaven, “The Lord rebuke you!”

I found out after the fact that, while the archangel Gabriel is associated with the color blue, Michael’s color is typically red. I gave him a red cloak simply because the painting needed some color. What I also realized after the fact is that Michael’s cloak seems to be floating down, as a funeral pall, over the wrapped body of Moses. How appropriate that a symbol of Christ’s blood covers a saint in death, becoming a vivid reminder that not even Satan, with all his biting and clawing and accusing, may claim what is the Lord’s by virtue of His own death and resurrection!


Giclée prints of 'Michael Contending' are available from the artist. For more information or to order prints, please e-mail the artist at

 Sizes/prices for prints for 'Michael Contending:'
12” x 18” / $80  ·  16” x 24” / $110  ·  24” x 36” / $180

Friday, July 19, 2019

Illuminating Szyk

"The Manciple" Arthur Szyk. 1945.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

We cannot fault Arthur Szyk too much for placing a swastika on the Old Testament image of Haman hanging from a gallows. Szyk (pronounced Shick) was an artist/illustrator, proud of both his Jewish and Polish heritage, who lived and worked during the horrors of two world wars. Sentiments expressed in his politically-charged illustrations often found their way into other, unrelated work.

Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) was a bit of an anomaly. He avoided modern movements in fine art, skirted trends in illustration, and instead relied on a more classical approach, using richly-detailed motifs pulled from his cultural heritage. Add to that a strong affinity for Medieval illumination, with an uncompromising approach to the same. If that were not enough, Szyk visually railed against the Axis powers of WWII and embraced political freedom expressed with patriotic zeal – first for his native Poland, then France and England, and finally for his eventual home in the United States.
"Statute of Kalisz" Arthur Szyk. 1927.

This heady mix is at once opulent in detail and rich in symbolism. Although fine artists often deplore the term “craft,” Szyk knew his craft well – and revelled in it.

“The Manciple,” an illustration for the “Canterbury Tales,” is a good primer for Szyk’s style. The medieval figure is crafted in such a way that even its outer shape is attractive. Well-designed, ornate patterns fill the figure’s cloak, then smaller spaces, and then every space between. But, really, Szyk is only toying with us.

We see something far different when the artist begins to flex his illuminator muscles. The frontispiece of the “Statute of Kalisz,” depicting Casimir the Great, is truly a jewel. Szyk’s love for his motherland is evidenced in every nook and cranny of this 1927 work. Significance spills from the focal figure to the very margins of the piece. It would have been impossible for the reader to turn the page without lingering over such mastery.
Dedication page for
"The Szyk Haggada" 1936.

While Szyk was not a practicing Jew, the obvious love for his heritage is found in another book, “The Szyk Haggada.” Like other Haggadas, it narrates the Exodus and is read during Passover. Unlike other narrations, however, Szyk totally avoids ‘graven image’ arguments found in Jewish aniconism, and further convolutes things by introducing unorthodox imagery, some of which needed to be edited. (Yes, swastikas had to be removed from the arms of the oppressive Egyptians!)

Because Polish publishing houses were squeamish about the book, a publishing house was established in England for the sole purpose of printing the book. The opulent quirkiness of the 1936 volume is obvious in Szyk’s dedication page to King George VI.  The dedication reads:
“At the feet of your most gracious majesty I humbly lay these works of my hands, shewing forth the afflictions of my people Israel. Arthur Szyk, illuminator of Poland.”
“Humbly” seems to be a formality, for a self-portrait of Szyk is in the corner, next to the Polish eagle and a small vignette of modern Israelites. The rest is largely devoted to imagery pulled from the Royal arms of England.
"Four Freedoms: Prayer"
Arthur Szyk. 1949.

The artist was a staunch opponent of tyranny in general and Nazism in particular, but his allegiance could also be a bit pliable. Sorry, King George, but after settling in the U.S., Szyk created elaborate pieces based on constitutional freedoms, and suddenly Americana flooded the corners of his work with red, white and blue bunting, eagles, and bewigged patriots. Perhaps most strangely, he created an illumination of The Lord’s Prayer for the January 1946 issue of Coronet magazine. When compared to his other work, however, it becomes apparent that Szyk’s heart wasn’t quite up to the task.

The quirkiness of Arthur Szyk, in part, made him the popular artist that he was. Giving homage to past and present kings, as well as presenting his work to folks like Eleanor Roosevelt proved his worth. Thrusting barbs – some of which are extremely familiar [and hilarious] – at bullies like Hitler and Mussolini displayed his mettle. Creating such timeless pieces that equal – and surpass – illuminated masterpieces showed that he truly cared.

Friday, July 12, 2019

“Ego Sum Gabriel!”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It should give us comfort that Zechariah had a motor-mouth. All of us have done the same thing at some point or another and every saint has been born from the same sinful stock, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Biblical folks had foibles. In Zechariah’s case, you know the scenario well: Regret came rushing in even as the words poured out of his head.

Zechariah was a devout priest. Both he and his wife were given the rare Scriptural descriptor of being “...righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” Not everyone gets that kind of Biblical treatment. The aging couple, however, were childless, and it’s evident that they often prayed for children.

It was Zechariah’s turn to serve as priest before God in the temple, and by lot he was chosen to burn incense. It was also his turn to be a screw-up.

An angel appears to Zechariah and tells him that his prayers have been heard. I don’t know about you, dear readers, but I’d like to THINK that would clinch it for me – an angel standing in front of me and telling me my prayers have been heard. Who doesn’t want that?! What is more, the angel spells it all out for Zechariah, giving him everything he needs, short of printing out a spreadsheet and calendar.
"Gabriel" 2019. Edward Riojas.
Pen and ink on paper.
Copyright © Edward Riojas.
Image may not be reproduced.

But Zechariah wants proof, and that’s when things fall apart.

I can almost hear the angel’s lungs filling with air just before letting the priest have it. This point in the conversation was the inspiration for one of my entries in the Good Shepherd Institute's art exhibition, “With Angels and Archangels.”

"Gabriel" is intentionally static. Instead of setting up the theatrics of a Temple scene, I placed the angel Gabriel in a stylized, frontal pose that confronts the viewer. We get a little peek, through Zechariah’s eyes, of an annoyed angel. If his answer to proof isn’t clear enough, I’ve spelled it out in red for the viewer. “Ego sum Gabriel! qui asto ante Deum!” (”I am Gabriel! I stand in the presence of God!”)

And, yes, Zechariah was cured of his motor-mouth. For a while, at least.


Giclée prints of “Gabriel” are available from the artist. For more information or to order prints, please e-mail the artist at

 Sizes/prices for prints for “Gabriel:” 9.25” x 17” / $75  ·  12” x 22” / $100

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

For Independence Day

Mom's report card from
Godwin High School

Copyright © Edward Riojas

This probably comes as no surprise, but my mom is smarter than some folks in D.C.

As a slight departure from my usual drivel, I thought a quick drive down the bumpier parts of memory lane, courtesy of my mom, would be appropriate for the Fourth of July. (You will have to suspend your eager anticipation of my thoughts on the lovely and not-so-lovely aspects of the art world. Well, at least for this week.)

Years ago, I intercepted a small stack of my mom’s high school things that were intended for the trash. I may feel differently about my own high school mementos, but the things of my parent’s generation are worth remembering and keeping. That is particularly true, given the current political climate of our nation.

In the stack of things, there were some special items, including a graduation card filled with very tender words, given to 17-year-old Laura Weppler from a man ten years her senior. Both would eventually become my parents. There was a corsage pressed flat. There were report cards from Godwin High School, where my mom graduated. There were essays my mom wrote.

One set of papers looked like organized notes, written in well-crafted cursive. I initially assumed it was for a history class, but then realized she was writing about current events. The year was 1944. The first few lines of the notes on the “German Natzis” [sic] are stunning, if not condemning, for those Americans who today lean in a peculiar direction.

Without pushing a political agenda, the high school teachers of my mom's day taught the ugly, unvarnished truth that made the world what it was. One cannot read the words from 1944 without immediately seeing that several politicians of our day not only have a grievous lapse of memory, but also a horrendous lapse of judgment, as well.

The school notes, in part, read, “1. What movement do German Natzis [sic] follow? Fascism (called National Socialism)”

This our parents learned and we, in turn, were taught, yet there are those who aspire to lead us headlong down a forgotten path of the same ideology. We dare not follow. The “Greatest Generation” had no qualms about fighting for what was right, and sacrificing without question those things that were dear, including life itself. There were also sacrifices which now seem incomprehensible, including self-identity. It was a time when patriotism meant putting aside personal gain, assumed rights, and juvenile desires in favor of national unity. In writing unapologetically as a citizen of the United States, Mom spelled out the fallacies of a foreign, socialistic government, brought to light the errors of its teaming masses, and strongly defended the governance of the U.S., even though Mom’s name, her relatives, her native culture, and the language formerly spoken in her home ... were all German.

I doubt that any of mom’s generation will ever forget those years – neither will most of the children of that generation. Those who forget history, on the other hand, are doomed to repeat it.