Crucified Love: a Good Friday Reflection

This Lent I have had two devotional projects which, I think, will continue far beyond Easter.

First, I have been painting the face of Jesus on the cross. I have attempted different media which have brought their various technical challenges, but in each case the concentration required has drawn me back into giving attention to Jesus Christ. Sustained attentiveness is rarely easy, but painting his face has drawn me in.

The face of Christ: a study in acrylics

I have used various icons and paintings from the past as inspiration for my artistic

endeavours. These prototypes have provided a starting point for prayer as well as painting. The painting (right) is a study in acrylics (a medium new to me) inspired by a crucifix painted by Giunta Pisano in the middle of the thirteenth century.

Which brings me to my second Lenten project – a study of the historical development of how the crucifixion has been portrayed, both in Orthodox iconography and early Western art. I have been particularly intrigued by the transition in thirteenth century Italy from Byzantine iconic influence to the more naturalistic renditions of Western art.

There is, of course, an important difference between Orthodox iconography, with its almost sacramental intention of offering a window into the spiritual realities represented, and western art which has tended to focus more on the humanity of the subject of the painting. Whereas the icon, painted with prayer, offers in visual form an invitation to relate to whoever is being represented, the West has been more concerned with drawing the viewer into the drama of a scene, often by touching the emotions and encouraging an identification with the subject.

Giunta Pisano: Crucifix of San Ranieri (c.1240-50)

I know this is an over-simplification (perhaps a theme for another blog on another day) but it provides me with a vantage point from which to be intrigued by the developments in thirteenth century Italy. As the century went on there was a move towards more naturalistic (I won’t say ‘more realistic’) painting from the relatively flat surface of the Byzantine icon to the three-dimensional humanity of Giotto’s paintings and beyond.

In the painting of crucifixes for churches this moved from the Romanesque representation of Christ alive and reigning from the cross – dressed, bearing his own weight and with eyes open and arms outstretched in blessing – to a dead Christ, slumped with eyes closed and bleeding side. (It is true that Byzantine icons of the crucifixion had begun to present Christ dead on the cross, but with more of a sense of regal repose than of human suffering.) It has been suggested that the compassionate influence of the Franciscans (Francis died in 1226) had a bearing in Italy on the devotional attention to the suffering of Christ and the increasing naturalism of its pictorial representation. Certainly, meditation on the cross has been fruitful for so many Christians as they have been led to respond to the appeal of God’s love to win their hearts.

It is not only in the visual arts, however, that this can take place. In the Reformed tradition word pictures have often replaced painted images as poets, hymn-writers and preachers have evoked powerful images in the mind’s eye. None more so than Isaac Watts who, early in the eighteenth century, invited his London congregation to visualise the cost of God’s love for us and our salvation. Firmly in the Western artistic tradition, those who sing his hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ are invited to gaze on the crucified saviour and respond to his loving sacrifice:

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Picturing God

In my previous blog, I published a recent hymn I’d written which focuses on the Trinity. When thinking about what image to present with the text, I quickly decided on the icon of the so-called Old Testament Trinity painted by Andrei Rublev, probably in the 1420’s near Moscow. It is a famous image of the three angelic visitors to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18) which has traditionally been interpreted as an epiphany, or revealing, of God.

Later, I realized that I had simply opted for the default image – just research how many books on the doctrine of the Trinity published in the last thirty years or so have this image printed on their covers. The image is attractive and intriguing, but its popularity probably also reflects the way in which Eastern Orthodox perspectives have influenced recent theological explorations of the Triune nature of God. This has included a greater emphasis on the relational, or social, dynamics of Father, Son and Spirit, perhaps correcting some of the more hierarchical aspects of some Western theology. I have tried to reflect and celebrate some of this divine interaction – er, I mean Love – in the hymn text.

I have tried to think of other images which might be used instead of the Rublev icon – images which might present the Triune nature of God in a way which communicates something significant. The challenge is greater when we consider the reticence there is in portraying God the Father in art. In Eastern iconography it just is not permitted and it would be considered idolatrous. Rublev’s angels are a subtle symbol which avoids this pitfall – another reason for its popularity. Occasionally you may see a hand or an arc in heaven (like on the icon of the baptism of Christ) but that is all. In iconography, the majesty of God is normally portrayed through the icon of the Pantocrator, an image of the enthroned Christ (who is the image of the invisible God – Colossians 2.15).

In Western art, however, there have been some Trinitarian attempts which include portraying God the Father. One striking example is Masaccio’s fresco in Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Intriguingly, this Renaissance exercise in scientific perspective was painted almost exactly the same time as Rublev’s icon which is normally dated by historians sometime before 1427. Yet these two works are worlds apart. The subtle simplicity, and mysterious ambiguity of the Rublev image (after all, which is which?), is far away from the scientific exactness and supreme draughtsmanship  of Masaccio. Remember that perspective drawing is a kind of trickery (look at the way that the image is framed in what appears to be an architectural setting but is, in fact, two-dimensional paint! We could reflect on this clever deception contrasts with the so-called ‘inverse perspective’ of eastern iconography but that is a blog for another day…

Somehow, the bravura artistry gets in the way of the painting itself and even when we try hard to look through that skill, the image disappoints, at least this viewer. The Father stares stoically into the distance and, while he seems to be supporting the cross, there is little relating going on. The Spirit in the form of a dove darts between the two and we are presented with a moment in time rather than a relating in eternity, which seems to be more about atonement than eternal love.

A similar tableau is presented in the stained glass of Prague Cathedral. I’ve not been able to identify the artist but think the window is probably early twentieth century – and would be delighted to have more information if anyone can help here. I took the photo some years ago by resting my compact camera on a friend’s shoulder. The original has striking colours and the image is quite heroic – yet there is the pathos of the Father embracing the body of Jesus (rather like a western pieta where Mary is portrayed embracing the body of her son). Here, however, the Spirit appears more as a witness than a participant so, again, there is less emphasis on the relating of the members of the Trinity and theologians will no doubt comment on this artistic clue about Western perspective which need some Eastern correction. Enter the Cappadocian Fathers and Andrei Rublev again!

Before the time when time began,
   before the cosmos came to be,
God lived in love and love was all
   and love o’erflowed the One in Three.

All is Love: A Trinitarian Hymn

 

Here is a new hymn text which grew out of a Trinitarian reflection on John 1.1-18. I have a feeling that a couple of the verses are still in process of development, so any suggestions would be grateful received. In the meanwhile, if you wish to field test it in worship then you are welcome to reproduce it provided you acknowledge authorship and source (crammedwithheaven.org).

All is Love

Before the time when time began,
   before the cosmos came to be,
God lived in love and love was all
   and love o’erflowed the One in Three.

The Father spoke and glory shone,
  creating both the day and night.
The Word of God was life for all,
  eternal, undivided light.

Though sin has done its spoiling work,
  with life corrupted, love ignored,
our Christ has come, redeeming all:
  a life laid down, a love outpoured.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill my heart,
  repair my life, renew my will,
that I may know and share your love
  and Christ may all my living fill.

I worship and adore you, Lord,
  I praise you, Father, Spirit, Son;
for you are mine and I am yours,
  eternal Love, beloved One.
                                        Christopher J Ellis

Tunes:           Tallis’s Canon
                      Come Together (Jimmy Owens)

			

A New Beginning

Scotney Flowers

Welcome to the new-look crammedwithheaven.org blog and website. If you have been here before, or if you are a follower and have wondered about the site’s inactivity, then I am happy to announce a new beginning.

Not only do we have a new and clearer appearance to the site, but the content has been revised and refocused. Most importantly, in its new era there will be regular blogs and an expanding fund of resources on some of the pages.

When I began the blog in 2011 I was on study leave in Italy and was reflecting on art and spirituality. You can still find my musings my Italian Journey page. Since then I have done a lot more painting and, I hope, a lot more praying. You can find some of my more recent art works through the GALLERY menu and there will still be a focus on the visual arts in this site. But I now want to both widen  the range and sharpen the focus of crammedwithheaven.org.

The range of my musings will continue to embrace art and spirituality but will now also include poetry. In the spirit of a reflective practitioner, I want to both practise these things and reflect upon them. The static web pages will offer resources for worship, together with some of my paintings, poems and prayers. There will also be a small number of pages dedicated to the academic study of these creative areas and their relationship to praying and doing theology. The now-to-be-regular blogs will offer a mix of reflection, study and artistic creations of one kind or another. So:

PRAYER, PAINTING AND POETRY

– REFLECTIONS, STUDIES AND RESOURCES

I hope you find this new era of crammedwithheaven.org both interesting and useful. If you do then please tell a friend!

Pentecost: from Grand Finale to New Creation

A couple of years ago I was invited to visit Palestinian and Israeli Christians and had the opportunity to visit Nazareth, where a large modern church stands on the traditional site of the annunciation. This beautiful building, the largest church building in the middle east, is enhanced by many modern works of art presented as gifts from around the world. While many different cultures and artistic traditions are represented, the common theme is Mary the mother of Jesus – the story of the incarnation begins with her willingness to carry in her own body the one who will carry the sins of the world for our salvation.

The church has a number of large bronze doors on which are depicted scenes from scripture and one which caught my eye portrays the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is a powerful image which presents the twelve apostles, together with Mary, welcoming the Spirit who is represented both as a descending dove and as flames. GoNaz BA Pentecost Doord’s presence is both powerful and empowering and leads to worship and witness. On a lighter note, the image also reminded me of the finale of a West End musical, with the star at the centre and arms raised!

As an Evangelical, I have sometimes wondered about the Catholic emphasis on Mary and the encounter with this image was no exception. It reminded me that often, in Catholic art and Orthodox iconography, Mary is represented as being present with the disciples when the Spirit came on the day of Pentecost. It sent me back to my bible to check whether this was ‘just a tradition’ and I found that the apostles returned to Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus and, staying in the upper room, indeed ‘all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers’ (Acts 1.14). And then the Pentecost story itself begins in Acts 2.1 with ‘they were all together in one place’.

The story of Jesus’ life on earth begins and ends with his mother and the Holy Spirit. At the beginning, she has to give permission for God the Holy Spirit to conceive the earthly life of Jesus within her body. This is new life, a new creation made possible by Mary’s ‘Yes’ of courage and trust, as well as the work of the Spirit. At the end, when Jesus is no longer physically present on earth, the same Spirit of God comes to give powerful faith to a group of dispirited disciples and empowers them to witness to Jesus across the world

We too are invited to welcome the Holy Spirit into our hearts and lives. Just as Mary’s ‘Yes’ made possible God’s new creation of Jesus within her, so our ‘Yes’ to the Spirit makes possible God’s re-creation of us in the likeness of Jesus. God’s presence in our lives takes on the appearance of Jesus, as the word of love becomes flesh in our lives and actions. Come, Lord, Jesus, come!

Incarnation

Incarnation

And the Word became flesh and lived among us,

and we have seen his glory…

Edwin Muir, the Scottish poet, railed against the cold churchmanship he had known, abstract and hard on people:

The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book…

He predicted that,

The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down…
Abstract calamity, save for those who can
Build their cold empire on the abstract man.

This is always a danger, especially for theologians: to reverse the divine plan and make the personal abstract. Yet incarnation is not abstract, it is down-to-earth religion with a down-to-earth God, born of a woman, pierced by nails and buried behind stone.

 The Newborn Child by Georges de la Tour
The Newborn Child by Georges de la Tour

How can I portray incarnation,
how paint a mystery of God become human,
spirit become matter?
How can I define an action,
an event which defies definition?
How can I describe a process of humiliation,
a road of descent from heaven to hell?
How can I speak of ‘presence, or ‘glory’?
as the Word did not become words, but flesh.
What shall I bring to this mystery?
Not explanation but adoration,
not narrative but sacrament,
as Word becomes flesh again:
Christ in me, the hope of glory.

In a country church

In this church all is still,
but for the clock’s tick;
the bell ropes hang
waiting for the ringers’ tug.
The pews wait for restless worshippers
or tired travellers;
the windows send threads of sun
along the pews’ edges
and silence waits to be filled.

Something coalesces –
is it the presence of God?
or is it my racing pulse
slowing to the pace of reflected memories?
In the space,
in the silence,
in the need,
in the waiting,
there is room for God.

Christopher J Ellis