Painting

Glory to God in the Highest

James B. Janknegt, Glory to God in the Highest

 

Luke’s Gospel portrays the birth of Jesus in the context of literal good news for the poor and those who are outcast. In Luke’s telling, angels announce the arrival of the Messiah to shepherds sleeping out in the fields or in caves with their flocks. As we shall note soon, Matthew casts these events in a more worldly and political context, with visiting Magi from the East, and Herod’s anxiety about a challenge to his propped-up throne.

Jim Janknegt is a painter whose thoughtful and creative engagement with the Scriptures I have admired for years. He paints in a style that some might describe as ‘primitive.’ Yet, in my view, he is an artist whose work often displays a highly sophisticated engagement with multiple dimensions of the biblical texts that shape our worship in both this and in other liturgical seasons. As the above image suggests, he also demonstrates a sensitive and wide-ranging color palette.

On this third day of Christmas, which is also the feast of St. John, the Apostle and Evangelist, I am grateful for Janknegt’s portrayal of the shepherds receiving and rejoicing over the witness of the holy angels.

As we sing in a favorite hymn:

Angels we have heard on high,
singing sweetly through the night,
and the mountains in reply
echoing their brave delight.

Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Shepherds why this jubilee?
Why these songs of happy cheer?
What great brightness did you see?
What glad tidings did you hear?

[repeat chorus]

Come to Bethlehem and see
him whose birth the angels sing;
come, adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.

The Hymnal 1982, #96

To learn more about the artist, James B. Janknegt, and his work, click this link: http://bcartfarm.com/index.html

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… On the Feast of Stephen

Music and Illustration related to the Christmas Carol, Good King Wenceslas, from 1913

 

For our brothers and sisters ‘across the pond’ in the U.K., today is Boxing Day. The name comes from the tradition of giving boxes or baskets of Christmas gifts to family, friends, and employees, on December 26. Today is also the feast of St. Stephen, my patron saint. We have a familiar Christmas carol associated with this day.

From Wikipedia:

“Good King Wenceslas” is a Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian king who goes on a journey, braving harsh winter weather, to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of St Stephen. During the journey, his page (or helper) is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935).

The fact that the Church, in its historical liturgical calendar, would remember the first of the martyrs on the second of the 12 Days of Christmas bears some reflection. Here, below, is a panel of a compelling contemporary triptych painting by the gifted British painter, Peter Koenig, depicting the martyrdom by stoning of Stephen (see Acts, Chapters 6 – 7). Against the backdrop of the spires and walls of an image of the new Jerusalem come down from heaven (in the upper left), we find Stephen holding a chalice of the ‘the blood of the new covenant’ outside the walls of the ‘old city,’ the world in which we presently live.

 

Arrival at Bethlehem

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Census at Bethlehem, 1566

 

In one of my favorite paintings for this time of year, we find the Holy Family arriving at Bethlehem just at sunset on what might have been Christmas Eve. Mary on a donkey, in the center foreground, is led by Joseph toward what appears to be a crowded inn, a likely location for where the census was taking place. (See Luke 2:1-7.)

We approach this holy feast time like Mary and Joseph, with anticipation, yet not fully aware of the glory that is to be revealed to us.

May our Lord, who was and is, and is to come, bless us and our loved ones during this holy time.

Annunciation to Joseph

Alexander Ivanov, Joseph’s Dream

 

Here I begin sharing a series of images for the 12 days of Christmas, including two prior events as well as some that follow the Nativity. Christmas Day, Dec. 25, is officially the first of the 12 days. Yet, as we anticipate the holy season ahead, it is appropriate to remember and consider what prepared the way for the miracle we are soon to celebrate.

In this new Revised Common Lectionary year, which focuses on Matthew’s Gospel we hear of an Annunciation to Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25), less familiar to most of us than the Annunciation to Mary as recorded by Luke. Joseph was as attentive to his Annunciation as Mary was to hers. And like her, he was equally trusting and obedient.

May our Lord, who was and is, and is to come, bless us and our loved ones during this holy time.

Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending (The Beauty of His Return)

Jim Janknegt: I will make all things new (2005)

 

The title of this post comes from Charles Wesley’s hymn-text adaptation of words from Revelation that refer to the Second Coming of Christ in glory: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him” (Rev 1:7). In this first week of Advent, and perhaps having sung Wesley’s hymn on Sunday, we need to explore what this ‘wailing’ may involve.

Many people today regard the Second Coming as something prompting fear about a Final Judgment. This may be one cause for the wailing that Wesley anticipates. Though texts in Revelation, as well as in the Gospels, certainly involve this theme, Revelation’s author is also very clear in expressing a faith that Christ’s return will involve restoration, the fulfillment of promises, and the beauty of shared glory. Hence, the wailing may also reflect holy sorrow stemming from a deepened awareness of personal sin, accompanied by ‘tears of joy’ over being forgiven.

Wesley’s verse 2 of his hymn predicts the first dimension of wailing: “Every eye shall now behold him, robed in dreadful majesty; those who set at nought and sold him, pierced, and nailed him to the tree, deeply wailing, … shall the true Messiah see.” Verse 3 describes the second dimension: “Those dear tokens of his passion still his dazzling body bears, cause of endless exultation to his ransomed worshipers; with what rapture, … gaze we on those glorious scars!”

Words in Revelation, preceding and following its prediction about how “all tribes of the earth will wail,” provide a foundation for hope. The author says at the beginning of this last book of the Bible (1:4-5), “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from … Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead…” And then (in 1:8) we find, “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come…’”

These words are echoed near the end of Revelation, where we find a description of the New Jerusalem and a renewed Creation. Among them are these: “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new'” (21:5).

Jim Jaknegt’s painting, I will make all things new, expressively captures the positive dimension of these themes and the ground for hope that lies in the beauty of the Lord’s return. All things! That is a phrase worth exploring in terms of quite a number of biblical texts, especially Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

In the first chapter, Paul writes, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:16-17). Paul then indicates (1:19-20) the ground for hope regarding “all things,” which Janknect suggestively depicts: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven…”  God’s ultimate goal in all this is reconciliation rather than condemnation, even though people who dismiss God’s ongoing work of reconciliation may find themselves brought to sadness.

Notice the pronounced swirling motion in Janknegt’s painting, as all things are caught up into the returned Lord’s orbit. But all people? For unlike flora and fauna, as well as inanimate objects, human beings made in God’s image and likeness possess the freedom of will either to accept or to refuse God’s initiatives to reconcile us into divine intimacy. This is why there may be at least two dimensions to the wailing that the Lord’s return is likely to initiate. For grief over sin may bear fruit in repentance.

We should therefore note the words of invitation at the end of Revelation: “‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20)

 

Jim Janknegt is a painter who is based in the Austin, Texas, area, who has produced a remarkably large body of work based on biblical themes and imagery. The website featuring his work can be found at http://bcartfarm.com/ I have admired, and with his permission have featured, his images for many years. Lo! He comes with clouds descending appears as Hymn 57 in The Episcopal Church’s The Hymnal 1982.

 

More on Contrast and Continuity

The School of Athens, and The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, by Raphael

 

Prompted by an article by William Least Heat-Moon, I reflect once again on two interrelated frescoes by Raphael. On his sometime-ago trip to the Yucatan, Least Heat-Moon was accompanied by his Mayan translator, Berto. There, the author encountered a destroyed Mayan temple. Regarding the temple’s relation to a later Christian cathedral occupying the same site, he quotes his translator.

“Many stones come from a Mayan temple that was long ago on this hill,” [said Berto, who] regretted this destruction. Yet to him, the broken stones imparted an additional dimension to the church because ancient Mayas usually did not destroy an earlier structure, instead building over it to layer meaning and power.

What an insight regarding contrast and continuity.

With that in mind, consider how visitors entering the Vatican Raphael room do so facing the fresco in the lower of the two images above. They behold a painting depicting an altar in a church space, surrounded by the Holy Trinity and famous saints and biblical figures. Turning around in that same space, visitors see the fresco in the upper image. It depicts great persons from the classical world, with Plato and Aristotle in the middle. Tour guides typically present these two paintings, which face each other, in terms of the contrast between them, saying things like: “Here, on this wall, we have the best minds of the pagan world. But, on the opposite wall, we see great saints of the Bible and the Church.”

We can look at these two interrelated paintings in another way. We might also see the continuity between them, even if the content of the two paintings seems rather different. For example, notice how the two frescos are composed with the same elements: similar colors and textures; the same arch over each image; and that the two spaces in which the figures walk or sit may be in the same building. And how the perspective or vanishing point in each painting mirrors that of the other.

Further, visitors who enter this room walk forward in the same direction as do Plato and Aristotle, who therefore share company with their contemporary pilgrims. Together, they and their later newcomers walk forward, approaching an altar surrounded by many saints! As a result, Raphael’s two paintings provide a splendid reflection on the theme of continuity.

Perceiving points of continuity between pre-Christian cultures and central themes in Scripture and in Western Christian theology has historically been more typical of the broader Catholic tradition, which includes not only Roman Catholics but also Anglican as well as some Reformed theologians, poets, and hymn writers. A contrasting parallel is provided by a historic tendency among many Protestant writers, preachers, and theologians, who have stressed a discontinuity not only between a Christian and a pagan view of the world, but often a perceived antithesis between them. This may caution us about making an ‘either/or‘ of what some may perceive as being a ‘both-and.’

Some who commend Celtic spirituality offer a compelling observation about Christian holy places in Ireland. Celtic crosses can often be found in or among pre-Christian places of worship. To the extent that this is so, we discern an openness to perceiving continuity. That is, a continuity between a place previously associated with a pre-Christian form of religion, and a later Christian willingness to pray and worship at the same location. Here, we should note a significant distinction.

Continuity does not imply sameness nor equivalence. There may be similar elements between what was before and what may come after. Such similarities do not obviate the potential newness and difference of what arrives later. Yes, the ‘new’ may bring change by covering over and even by replacing what came before, an approach typically characterizing contrast and discontinuity. Yet, the ‘new’ may bring change positively, by building upon what came before while also including and transforming it. No finer example of this exists than the Pantheon in Rome, also known as Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs.

All this has implications not only for the Christian transformation of places but also for how we view the baptismal transformation of people.

 

The images above are of two of Raphael’s paintings, traditionally titled The School of Athens, and The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament. My prior blog post on these paintings may be found here: https://towardbeauty.org/2019/09/28/the-beauty-of-contrast-and-continuity/ . That post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 22, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.

The Delta Art of William Dunlap

Book cover of Dunlap’s 2006 retrospective art survey book

 

If Andrew Wyeth had migrated to the Delta region of Mississippi, some of his paintings may have turned out looking like those of William Dunlap. Folks not from the central deep South will usually associate that term, the ‘Delta,’ with the outflow of the great river south of New Orleans in several branched outlets. Yet, the term, the ‘Delta,’ in the mid and deep South refers to the region abutting the Mississippi River south of Memphis, bordered by Arkansas and Mississippi. Historically, and until the present, it has been characterized as one of the poorest regions of our nation and also known as the birthplace of the Blues, a fact which may not be coincidental. Lush with vegetation in a multitude of vibrant greens during the summer, the Delta has a stark beauty in the winter, especially where trees have been removed for farmland. Usually not cold enough for lasting snow, gray skies often complement the gray trunks and limbs of deciduous trees, as well as of cypresses in the swamps and by the river.

William Dunlap’s paintings, particularly the more recent ones, capture well the landscapes of this mostly rural part of ‘flyover’ America. As his artwork often depicts, the low-on-the-horizon winter sun pokes through bands of dark clouds, where in the evening a surprising warm glow can enliven an otherwise flat and bleak landscape. Dunlap lived in many places in the Old South while growing up, but the north central hill country of Mississippi, and Webster County, remained a homing point connected with his grandparents. Yet, I find his most evocative paintings are of the comparatively flat alluvial terrain on the east bank of ‘the American Nile’ south of Memphis.

Dunlap grew up feeling like he had lived in two eras of history, one being the late 19th century whose social legacy permeated the circumstances of his youth, and the other stemming from his having been born at the end of WWII, having come of age in the 1960’s. Images in many of his paintings reflect this paradoxical tension between old world cultural patterns and practices, and new world adventurous explorative freedom.

The dogs in his paintings reflect aspects of this dynamic. Dunlap’s grandfather bred and raised Walker hounds (most memorably represented in the top painting), which are often depicted as his central subjects within expansive landscapes. According to J. Richard Gruber, they are “used as a surrogate for man (and himself) in his works.” Here, in his choice of subject matter, we find another rural ‘old south’ in tension with an emerging new world. It is most markedly suggested in one of his paintings where he places a power plant cooling tower, releasing steam, behind a rural farmstead fronting an open field (not depicted).

This may help us appreciate the term Dunlap coined to describe his approach to painting, ‘hypothetical realism,’ a term which I think applies equally to the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. Remarkably, Dunlap basically taught himself to paint, and focussed his early work on Rembrandt and other ‘Old Masters,’ while also displaying the evident influence of modern masters such as Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The effect of some of these more recent artists’ work can be seen in two of the paintings above, by the visual inclusion in the skyline of the regional names, Delta and Arkansas, in label-stylized fonts preferred by many Pop Art painters. Once again, we encounter a dynamic interplay between historically traditional approaches to representational painting and the 20th century reactionary revolt against them.

Dunlap is a truly gifted painter, both in terms of what he has been able to accomplish, but also in terms of his encompassing creative vision. Internet images, upon which I have relied here, only begin to suggest the expanse of his creative perspective.

 

 

For those who might want to see more of Dunlaps paintings, as well as learn more about him and them, I commend his coffee table book, Dunlap (which, through Amazon and or other sources may still be available, and which provides a much more accessible resource for appreciating the painter’s work:  (https://smile.amazon.com/Dunlap-William/dp/1578069041/ref=sr_1_5?crid=1YS7GNY6ZE2AS&keywords=dunlap+william+dunlap&qid=1654915393&s=books&sprefix=%2Cstripbooks%2C91&sr=1-5).

The Beauty of a Whistler ‘Arrangement’

 

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, by James McNeill Whistler (1871)

This post continues the prior one featuring Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold (scroll below)

 

Whistler was sensitive to some similarities between his approach to painting and the realm of music, and often gave his paintings titles that suggest this connection. He chose words for naming them like arrangement, harmony, symphony, as well as nocturne – a word the composer Debussy (upon whom Whistler’s art had a profound effect) chose for some piano works. Perhaps the most significant commonality between music and some of Whistler’s paintings (as well as with modern abstract art) is that instrumental music is rarely representational in the sense of being about depiction. Instead, such music seeks to convey meaning by evoking sensation and emotion within the listener. For example, Ferde Grofé’s orchestral Grand Canyon Suite is less an effort to describe or portray that magnificent geological locale than it is a means by which the composer can express, and evoke in listeners, the sublime experience of wonder encountered by many who visit there. Understanding this point helps us appreciate Whistler’s goal with many of his paintings, and especially his nocturnes.

For these reasons, Whistler’s most famous painting is probably his most misunderstood. His Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (note Whistler’s title), yet commonly referred to as Whistler’s Mother, clearly demonstrates the painter’s ability as a gifted portraitist. As with many such paintings, Whistler communicated a positive regard for his model, inviting us to share his appreciation for the person. Yet, by comparing this painting with a photograph of his mother helps us perceive his primary intent.

For Whistler did not choose in the painting to represent his model by a frontal or three quarter view (as in her photo), but from the side, in profile. With the title providing an important clue, Whistler’s principal goal with this painting was less to depict his mother than achieve an overall tonal composition. In a large painting, predominantly comprised of a study of shades and of subtle color, these tonal elements nevertheless help highlight the beauty of his sitter’s face.

As different as the three paintings featured here and in my prior post may appear, they have much in common in terms of the painter’s sustained interest in continuing to study a range of shades and subtle colors, as well as in an overall composition or ‘artistic arrangement.’ In this respect, the work of the 19th century Whistler in some ways foreshadowed paintings like those of the 20th century abstract expressionists, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, as well as the figurative works by Francis Bacon.

The Beauty of a Whistler Nocturne

Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket, by James McNeill Whistler (1875)

 

One of Whistler’s most remarkable paintings, Nocturne in Black and Gold, subtly rich in tone and with bright bits of color, bankrupted him as a result of a libel suit. A famous art critic, John Ruskin, had accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face,” and for the nerve of asking two hundred guineas for the result. Whistler asked the court not to consider this work as a traditional representational painting but rather as what he termed an ‘artistic arrangement.’ Its purpose was therefore not strict visual representation, for which a photograph would be more suitable. Instead, he sought to evoke the experience of having been at the depicted waterside gardens after dark during a fireworks display.

When asked by Ruskin’s attorney how long it had taken him to paint the canvas, Whistler frankly admitted that it was just a few hours. But then, he added, that even so, it took a lifetime of learning to create the work.  Whistler won the lawsuit. But he was awarded the smallest amount possible, one farthing, which financially ruined him.

Whistler had identified himself with the at-that-time daring phrase, ‘art for art’s sake.’ Viewers new to his work may find themselves using the title, Impressionist, to characterize his ‘artistic arrangements.’ With such paintings, he may appear to be connected with other painters identified by that label, as he was a contemporary with many of them. He shared their strong interest in newly discovered Japanese wood block prints by artists such as Hiroshige. And, like the Impressionists, he often sought to capture his subjective apprehension and experience of a particular scene, rather than depict it objectively in the way that ‘photorealist’ painters more recently have sought to do.

And yet, in contrast to those formally identified as Impressionists, Whistler often worked with a more limited palette, extensively employing black and various shades of gray as well as those of taupe, while seeking what he called a tonal harmony. As a result, though he was not averse to working with bright color, his use of it tended be more limited as compared with paintings by Van Gogh, Monet and Renoir. Further, while valuing atmospheric effects like his predecessor, JMW Turner, Whistler was also a gifted draftsman who periodically pursued precision in representation. This can be seen in many of his portraits, and in the way his paintings often feature linear boundaries for defining areas of tone and color within a composition (such as in his self-portrait, Arrangement in Grey, below).

I will follow up on this posting with a second one regarding Whistler’s painting, next week, when I will reflect upon the connection between his Nocturne in Black and Gold, and his Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, commonly mis-titled as Whistler’s Mother.

The Beauty of Audubon’s Birds

 

This past weekend, West Feliciana Parish (a Louisiana county) hosted the first of what is hoped will be an Annual John James Audubon Symposium. As with so many other events of this kind, COVID delayed the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the 1821 summer during which Audubon painted a large number of his famous bird pictures here in the St. Francisville area of Louisiana. Feliciana is a Spanish and Latin-derived word which means happy, and Audubon -we are told- was indeed well-pleased and contented by his time here to study and portray an amazing number of birds that still inhabit this region, whether by seasonal migration or by providing year-round company to local human residents.

The inspiration for this festival was provided in large part by local and regional historian, David Floyd, whose recent premature death added a special poignancy to the symposium. He had provided a succinct but heartfelt introduction to a beautiful little booklet, titled Audubon & Louisiana: 200 Year Love Story. David’s nuanced sense of Audubon’s place in the history of this region, and his perhaps Audubon-inspired vision for the future was captured for us by the author and presenter, Danny Heitman. Heitman noted how often David would begin a sentence with the word, imagine. “Imagine this…” or “imagine that…,” David would often say, and then invite a sense of possibility within his listeners. This led Heitman to observe something that may have been true of both David Floyd and John James Audubon. It is how a genuine sense of wonder about the world around us instills a sincere humility, and how both then lead to wisdom.

Danny Heitman’s book, A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House, is focused on that seminal 1821 summer during which Audubon discovered and then came to love West Feliciana Parish. During his presentation, Heitman commended three themes that help us appreciate the unique sensitivity of Audubon’s perception and artistic vision that so profoundly shaped his subsequent life’s work.

For Audubon, ‘nature was a verb,’ and something to be portrayed as alive with activity rather than displayed in a static, ‘pinned butterfly,’ way. In so many Audubon paintings, we find the birds pursuing what they might prey upon, or eluding what may be seeking to pursue them.

Second, and especially as assisted by his young associate, James Mason, Audubon was as attentive to the characteristic flora where he found his birds as he was to the birds themselves. Thus, the plants, shrubs and trees of this region are an intrinsic part of each composition.

And third, Audubon’s paintings were huge in size, and dramatic in the extent of their detail and range of color, and thus very compelling to viewers when they were first displayed. One contemporary commentator has likened their effect upon folks in early 19th century London as likely to have been akin to the remarkable effect upon first time viewers of movies in modern IMAX theaters.

We can be grateful, on this extended bicentennial celebration of Audubon’s summer at Oakley, for guides like David Floyd and Danny Heitman. For they help us see, and perceive more appreciatively, the immensely beautiful 200 year old bird paintings of John James Audubon as assisted by James Mason.

 

Pictured above is Audubon’s painting of the Louisiana or Tricolored Heron.