Each year for Advent we look at artwork from around the world with themes that speak to this time of reflection and meditation. Each work has a corresponding Bible verse or Meditation, and information about the artist.
ADVENT ONE: “The Last Judgement” by Wassily Kandinsky, 1912
One of the pioneers of abstract modern art, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) exploited the evocative interrelation between color and form to create an aesthetic experience that engaged the sight, sound, and emotions of the public. He believed that total abstraction offered the possibility for profound, transcendental expression and that copying from nature only interfered with this process. Highly inspired to create art that communicated a universal sense of spirituality, he innovated a pictorial language that only loosely related to the outside world, but expressed volumes about the artist’s inner experience. Kandinsky’s art and ideas inspired many generations of artists, from his students at the Bauhaus to the Abstract Expressionists after World War II.
His treatise “On the Spiritual In Art” (released in 1910) was both a defense and promotion of abstract art and an affirmation that all forms of art were equally capable of reaching a level of spirituality. He believed that color could be used in a painting as something autonomous, apart from the visual description of an object or other form. These ideas had an almost-immediate international impact, particularly in the English-speaking world. Writing of the “artist as prophet,” Kandinsky went on to create paintings in the years immediately preceding World War I showing a coming cataclysm which would alter individual and social reality. Raised an Orthodox Christian, Kandinsky drew upon the biblical stories of Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the whale, Christ’s resurrection, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse in the book of Revelation, Russian folktales and the common mythological experiences of death and rebirth. Never attempting to picture any one of these stories as a narrative, he used their veiled imagery as symbols of the archetypes of death/rebirth and destruction/creation.
Meditation: “Imagine that you are lifted into the earth’s atmosphere, high enough that you can sense events and emotions from all over the world. Suspended there, you become aware of conflicts all around—wars, disasters, families coming apart, people despairing. This information comes to you in waves of color, brilliant and dark and troubling.
As these pigmented mists move around you and as you move through them, you can feel them add weight to your body and soul. You feel yourself take on the sorrow, grief, rage, and confusion caused by sin in the world. You drift through the sky, growing heavier, as if the world’s woes have taken your voice and your ability to think or act.
After a while, a clear tone cuts through the murky atmosphere. It is bright and high and yet deep and beautiful—like a trumpet blasting multiple notes at once. A light accompanies the sound, and you can feel the dark masses of sorrow melting away as it approaches. Your eyes and ears seem to open, and you recover the sensation of being yourself, with the ability to hope and to make choices. The heaviness you had collected from the world’s sin sifts away, leaving you light and full of clean, new breath.
Then you recognize the One who has come with the light, the One whose light it is. He is speaking to the skies and to the world, proclaiming awful truths, naming all the damage—the death and disease, the abuse and waste. You weep to mourn all those who have suffered in every time and place. You weep out of relief that Jesus, Son of God, has confirmed all the trouble and anguish you have felt. Your own pain is real. You have suffered, too.
Then his words change, and the brightness grows. Now he speaks of mercy, forgiveness, and restoration. He speaks words to heal. His voice sends waves of fresh air across skies and seas, and you can feel humanity and all creation respond with lifted faces, open hearts. Now, you descend back into your ordinary life. You have witnessed the great judgment, and you find that you are free—free to be healed, and hungry to heal others.”
by Vinita Hampton Wright
ADVENT TWO: “L’Arbre de Jesse (the Tree of Jesse)” by Marc Chagall, 1975
Isaiah 10:30-11:6 “Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall. A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
Marc Chagall (1887-1985), born Moishe Segal, was at odds with the century in which he lived. Despite this, Chagall’s reputation is secure as one of the most critically acclaimed and popular artists of the century. Chagall’s popularity is due, in part, to his art being resistant to over-intellectualization which is the fate of so much art in the past century. An early Modernist, he was associated with several major artistic styles and created works in virtually every medium, including painting, illustration, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and prints. Considered a major Jewish artist, he produced windows for the cathedrals of Reims and Metz, windows for the UN, and the Jerusalem Windows in Israel.
Chagall cherished and publicly expressed his Jewish roots by integrating them into his art, despite growing up in Vitebsk, Lithuania, at a time when Jews were not allowed to attend Russian schools or universities and their movements were generally restricted. In 1910 Chagall relocated to Paris. He developed a whole repertoire of quirky motifs: ghostly figures floating in the sky, the gigantic fiddler dancing on miniature dollhouses, the livestock and transparent wombs and, within them, tiny offspring sleeping upside down. The majority of his scenes of life in Vitebsk were painted while living in Paris. His animal/human hybrids and airborne phantoms would later become a formative influence on Surrealism. Chagall, however, did not want his work to be associated with any school or movement.
Because he missed his fiancée, Bella, who was still in Vitebsk, Chagall accepted an invitation from an art dealer in Berlin to exhibit his work, intending to continue on to Vitebsk, marry Bella, and then return with her to Paris. However after a few weeks in Vitebsk the First World War began, closing the Russian border. The October Revolution of 1917 was a dangerous time for Chagall although it also offered opportunity. By then he was one of the Russia’s most distinguished artists and a member of the modernist avant-garde, which enjoyed special prestige as the “aesthetic arm of the revolution”. He was offered a position as commissar of visual arts for the country, but preferred something less political, and instead accepted a job as commissar of arts for Vitebsk. This resulted in his founding the Vitebsk Arts College which became the most distinguished school of art in the Soviet Union.
In 1931 Chagall traveled to Palestine on research for a recent commission to illustrate the Old Testament. Beginning the assignment was an extraordinary risk for Chagall, as he had finally become well known as a leading contemporary painter, but would now end his modernist themes and delve into an ancient past. Between 1931 and 1934 he worked obsessively on “The Bible”, even going to Amsterdam to carefully study the biblical paintings of Rembrandt and El Greco, to see the extremes of religious painting. He walked the streets of the city’s Jewish quarter to again feel the earlier atmosphere. He told Franz Meyer:
“I did not see the Bible, I dreamed it. Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time.”
ADVENT THREE: “Annunciation” by Maire Gartland
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. – Luke 1:26-38
We have heard the story so many times over the years, it sometimes fails to astonish us. The Annunciation. An angel appearing to Mary to ask if she will become the mother of the Christ.
For centuries, artists have pictured Mary at this moment in a variety of devout settings, surrounded by angels, covered in red velvet or standing amid tapestries and silver candles. These paintings can have a lot of power, and we can study the symbolism and love the artist lavished on them for a long time, being drawn even deeper into the mystery. But sometimes we might feel that these beautiful paintings don’t let Mary be real. We might imagine her as barefoot, cooking her own food and having a distinctive personality.
Although some of us may have once arrogantly dismissed her as “irrelevant” to our faith, we might find that we now rely on her for prayers and as a place to mull over the challenges of family and marriage. Using our imaginations, we might meditate on her, picturing her as a young woman of deep faith, long steeped in the Jewish tradition waiting for the Messiah. She must have read the Isaiah passages many times and prayed over them as her heart filled with gratitude and great dreams.
Her simple life probably included dreams of marriage, raising a family, teaching children the Jewish laws and traditions. But perhaps it was bigger than that. We might imagine that Mary’s heart had grown in her humility and generosity to God. Now she would be asked for the ultimate sacrifice. It invites us to wonder what kind of woman Mary was. We can envision her dark hair and eyes, her love of people. We can picture a charismatic figure, one who had, at any given moment, a kitchen filled with people, enjoying her well-known hospitality. Her stove was always going, good smells filling the air. With our imaginations, we might see Mary as an entertainer with a wonderful, billowing laugh centered in her joy of life. And a story-teller. Mary’s tales were famous around town, and in later years, her son would make great use of the talent he learned from his mother.
One morning the young woman was alone in her kitchen at mid-morning. A pot of soup bubbled on the fire as she prayed over the ancient words of the scriptures. Then, as she so often did, she poured out her heart to God, asking to be of service, to be open to anything He might ask. She longed for the Messiah as all Jewish people did. It was deep in her tradition, in the prayers and scriptures. She prayed as she stirred her soup.
She wasn’t frightened, but suddenly she was aware of a young man standing in her kitchen. She turned and looked toward him, never taking her hand off the spoon that stirred her soup. His presence was oddly comfortable until he dropped to one knee. “Hail, favored one. The Lord is with you.” Favored one? She was unsure and a small fear crept into her heart. What was this? Her first reaction was unexpected. “Oh, please no,” she whispers. What was this invitation? She wanted only a simple life, to marry Joseph, go to the Temple each year, live in the town she knew so well. Fear clung to her and knotted her stomach. “I can’t do this. I don’t know how. I’m not worthy. I know I said I would do anything, but God must have me confused with someone else. Someone more worthy.” She stood in shock while the young man waited for her answer. The empty kitchen was silent, except for the constant simmer of the soup. She closed her eyes. Fear. Wasn’t that always what sent her to God?
She breathed deeply and prayed. Open my heart. Let me be your servant. Lead me where you desire. You will be with me. Then, she knew. She turned back to the young man and nodded. I will do just as I have been asked, she said. And deep in our own souls, we pray with the same heart, asking for the fears to be eased, asking to feel God walking with us in this daily path of life, not certain that we can handle everything that is coming.
Mary, show us how. Teach us to trust in God as you have.
Let us do what sometimes seems unthinkable in this world:
to be humble and to accept without always understanding why or how.
Full text found at http://onlineministries.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/Advent/annunciation.html
For more information about contemporary artist Maire Gartland, visit http://www.mairegartland.co.uk/
ADVENT FOUR: “Nativity” by Rigaud Benoit, c. 1950
This painting was contemporaneously produced based on an important 1950 Port-au-Prince religious mural lost in the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
The oil on masonite painting titled “Nativity” was painted by leading Haitian artist Rigaud Benoit. The work was produced around the time Benoit was commissioned, along with three other leading Haitian artists, to paint a monumental mural series in the apse of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, located close to the National Palace in Port-au-Prince’s main square. Importantly, this commission likely marks the first time in the country’s history that local artists were invited and paid to create art in a public space.
With the original mural now destroyed, this painting carries a significant artistic legacy. The work was consigned for auction in 2010 from a private Minnesota collector and depicts a Haitian Madonna flanked by angels and surrounded by worshippers in a local village setting.
The original commission was the brainchild of renowned Haiti scholars and collectors Dewitt Peters and Selden Rodman. Once they secured financing with the help of the Episcopal diocese of Haiti, and they invited the leading Haitian artists of the day, Rigaud Benoit, Philomé Obin, Castera Bazile, and Gabriel Levêque, each paint a panel in the apse. It marked the first public commission that was created solely for and by Haitians.
Rigaud Benoit (1911–1986) had become one of the three or four most highly prized Haitian artists well before his death. A native of Port-au-Prince, Benoit had been a shoemaker, musician, and taxi driver before making his living as a painter. He had also supplemented his income by painting pottery pieces he rarely signed or acknowledged. Benoit was an early member of the Haitian art movement known as Naive Art, so-called because of its members’ limited formal training. The movement was first recognized and promoted by the Centre d’Art, founded in 1944 by the American Quaker and World War II conscientious objector Dewitt Peters.
According to a widely repeated story, Benoit was working as Peters’ chauffeur in 1944 when he saw some of the first works displayed at the Centre d’Art. He immediately decided he could do as well as any of the featured artists. Late in life Benoit denied that tale, insisting that he had merely visited the Centre out of curiosity before submitting his first works to Peters. However he got his start, his paintings rapidly became among the most highly sought of any Haitian artist. Then, in the early 1950s Benoit was one of a handful of artists asked to decorate the interior of the Cathedral of Sainte Trinité; his great mural, Nativity, stood above the high altar. (The Catholic archbishop had — to his subsequent regret — denied permission for “mere Haitians” to decorate the Roman cathedral. The Episcopal bishop eagerly consented to the project. On seeing the result he exclaimed “Thank God! They painted Haitians.”) The cathedral and its many masterpieces were all but totally destroyed in the January 2010 earthquake.