Kelly Latimore: Iconographer of a new “imago dei”

“Mama,” 36 x 48 in., 2020 All paintings gouache and gold leaf on board. Photos/courtesy of the artist

By Pamela A. Lewis

Any lingering ideas we might hold about artists who paint — or, more precisely, write — icons quickly disappear when we meet iconographer Kelly Latimore and his large body of work. The affable 34-year-old suburban Chicago native (now living and working in St. Louis) does not align with the image of an elderly monk bent over a panel and silently and reverently applying pigment or gold leaf to the sacred face he is depicting. Latimore is transforming old notions about icon writing with regard to what or whom should be represented.

In contemporary usage, the words “icon” and “iconic” have come to denote objects and people who have assumed a larger-than-life, emblematic status. But the fundamental definition of “icon” remains unchanged: image. Not merely an artwork, the icon has traditionally been a sacred image used in religious devotion. Most commonly a painting (although they have been produced in other media), the icon has its roots in the Eastern Orthodox church, as well as in the Roman and certain Eastern Catholic traditions.

Describing himself as a “Baptist preacher’s kid,” Latimore acknowledges that his personal background stands in contrast to the icon’s history and tradition. Although he was “always drawing and painting,” he had no acquaintance with the art form, yet had always connected with the arts as a vehicle for creating things which he deemed beautiful. Serious study of art took root during his years attending Greenville University in Greenville, Ill., where he learned about different genres, artists, and techniques.

After completing his university studies, Latimore moved to Ohio, where he met a couple who had started the Good Earth Farm, supplying food for pantries. Subsequently, he encountered a community called the Common Friars, centered on the monastic way of life and prayer from the Book of Common Prayer three times a day.

The new relationships he cultivated in this community, as well as learning about how to care for the earth, inspired Latimore to readjust his spirituality, from one which had been, in his words, more about “personal transcendence,” to being “up there with God,” to a consideration of how we care for the earth as Jesus did. The “lilies of the field” was the subject of his first icon.

Left, “Mary Oliver,” right, “John Lewis,” 12 x 16 in., 2019

Latimore began icon writing at Common Friars. He has enlarged the genre’s scope, informed by a wide range of artistic influences, such as Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, and Alice Neel, and strongly focused on relationships, community, and social justice.

Given his experience as a farmer, connecting to the land has been very important to Latimore, and in many of his icons, he gives equal attention to the surrounding landscape as he does to the figures occupying it.

It is not simply a decorative background, but an element that interacts with and comments on the human subjects (such as “La Sagrada Familia”). Earth, sky, and vegetation are strongly delineated, impelling the viewer to engage with the totality of the icon, instead of solely on the subjects. Latimore’s handling of the background is a decided departure from writing traditional icons, where that pictorial element is rendered in gold (symbolizing the celestial realm), and the figures and their garments are pigmented.

“The Good Shepherd,” 20×24 in., 2019

Having grown up in a primarily-white environment and church community where he did not see or interact with people different from himself, Latimore has set out to fill those gaps by making visible in his icons those whom society has chosen to keep invisible. In that regard, the artist has peopled his icons with a different type of sacred figure, literally and figuratively drawn from the full spectrum of humanity.

This new imago dei comprises disparate public figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., the late Senator John Lewis, author Flannery O’Connor, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and Oglala Sioux Holy Man Nicholas Black Elk.

By today’s lights, these were the “envelope pushers,” who challenged the prevailing social order and protested injustice. To Latimore, these are people “who have connected the word ‘Christian’ (even if they were non-Christian, non-believers, or whose racial attitudes were not necessarily evolved) with the liberation of the poor. They lived lives of presence. They were not focused on being holy; they were focused on being present.”

These are not the canonized saints of the church, whose sainthood was determined by miracles of extraordinary healings, but by bringing justice to those who had been deprived of it. Regardless of faith or creed, Latimore gives all of the figures in his paintings a gold nimbus (halo) to signify sainthood.

Icon purists have not been pleased with Latimore’s iconographic choices, and many have denounced his work. Ironically, most of the threats have come from Eastern Orthodox individuals in Russia and Ukraine, according to Latimore.

“La Sagrada Familia,” 12 x 16 in., 2016

Reactions have been especially strong to two paintings in particular: “Refugees: La Sagrada Familia” (2016) and “Mama” (2020). “Sagrada” was inspired by the story of a young Guatemalan man who told Latimore about his struggle to come to the United States, and of the remains of women holding babies he had seen along the way.

The family in this icon refers simultaneously to the New Testament account of the Holy Family fleeing state terrorism and to the countless refugees from Guatemala and other Central and South American countries fleeing terror, yet seeking refuge in an America whose tone sounded anti-immigrant and anti-stranger.

Soon after the murder of George Floyd, Latimore painted “Mama,” as a way to mourn the man whose brutal death was seen around the world. The artist has written it in traditional icon style, and arranged the figures as a latter-day pietà, where a Black Madonna holds her dead son, whose likeness is unmistakably that of George Floyd. (When asked whether the son is George Floyd or Jesus, Latimore always answers, “Yes.”)

Whereas the Madonna would normally look at her son, the artist shifted her gaze to the viewer. This subtle shift moves the focus outward, establishing a community of mourners who may reflect on what they have witnessed and act to prevent its reoccurrence. In some places, protesters displayed the image as they marched.

Some have also questioned whether a white male artist such as Latimore should represent people of color in religious paintings, to which the artist responds that white artists have been painting Christ as white for centuries, when the truth is that he was in all likelihood a person of color.

“Racism,” says Latimore, “is the denial of the Incarnation; the image of God is within all of us. In my interactions with other congregations and clergy of color, they are looking for other ways to represent Jesus. This is what it means to be human and to be present.”

There is growing concern that in the so-called “post-Christian” West, which is witnessing declining church attendance, creating religious art such as icons may be a futile activity. Latimore strongly believes that the church can participate in movements against war, racism, hunger, and poverty, and that it can be a “living, breathing, visible community of faith, which is but another word for ‹learning›. The main task of the church is the formation of people who love where it hurts.”

Based in New York, Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith.

In North Texas, Episcopalians take a deep breath

 

A previous service at All Saints Episcopal Church before the property was removed from the congregation. Photo/Courtesy of Diocese of North Texas

By Katie Sherrod

Sherrod

Let’s talk about what makes a “real church.”

In 2008, the former bishop of this diocese and many diocesan leaders left the Episcopal Church to become part of another church. They left because they refused to ordain women and to welcome out LGBTQ people into the full life and ministry of the Church, claiming their interpretation of Scripture was the only right one.

But even though they left the Episcopal Church they continued to claim Episcopal Church property and the name “Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.”

At that time, many Episcopalians in this diocese were forced out of their Episcopal church buildings because they wanted to remain a part of a loving, inclusive church instead of realigning with another church.

They had to find new places to worship. These congregations of displaced Episcopalians were creative and courageous, and they found worship space in unusual places such as storefronts, in wedding chapels, in a woman’s club, in a theatre, in a social service agency. And in those unusual spaces, they created holy spaces that were, and remain, “real churches.”

In 2021, as the result of the U.S. Supreme Court declining to hear our cases, the judgment of the State of Texas Supreme Court was allowed to stand. The Texas state court decided it has the right to decide who is the real Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, and so the state decided it was the group who left the Episcopal Church in 2008.

So, April 19, 2021, Episcopalians who had remained in six of our buildings were forced out of their historic church homes and forced to find new places to worship. And they have done so.

They are worshiping in spaces offered by Lutheran, Methodist, and Disciples of Christ churches as well as in the chapel on a church school campus, the back room of a real estate office and in an office building on a college campus.

And just so we’re clear — all of them are worshiping faithfully in holy spaces that are “real churches.”

Yes, it’s heartbreaking to be forced out of beloved church buildings. Yes, it’s sad to lose lovely stained glass windows, needlepointed kneelers, and sanctuaries filled with memories of baptisms, weddings, funerals, graduations, ordinations, confirmations, and perhaps most of all, the weekly ritual of worship with the glorious liturgies that shape and feed us all.

But here’s what we’ve learned — holy spaces can be created just about anywhere. Set up a table, get a cup and a plate, bread and wine, gather faithful people with a priest who begins “God be with you,” — and there it is. A real church.

It happens again and again and again. The ancient words are spoken, the people respond, and the Holy Spirit shows up. Every damn time. People here have never tired of that miracle.

We aren’t yet sure what’s next. We are still a bit in shock, we are still trying to get used to a new and different name, to new and different locations, and we are all pretty tired of having to explain why the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth isn’t part of the Episcopal Church anymore, and why all those ACNA buildings with Episcopal Church still in their names are NOT Episcopal churches aligned with the Episcopal Church.

We do know this, however. We are held in the arms of a loving God who is always present with us, in traditional stone churches, in back rooms, in store fronts, in school chapels, in theatres, in all the places we gather in our beautiful, unusual, and creative “real churches.”

Thanks be to God.  

Katie Sherrod is communications director of the Episcopal Church in North Texas.

North Texas Episcopal parishes plan new locations

Episcopal Journal

Six congregations in what is now known as the Episcopal Church in North Texas are sorting out worship locations after being evicted by a breakaway group affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America, or ACNA.

Congregants at All Saints’ Church in Fort Worth gather for worship, prior to the pandemic. Photo/Katie Sherrod

The U.S. Supreme Court in February declined to hear an appeal by the Episcopal Church’s Fort Worth-area diocese of a state court ruling [see the story in the April Episcopal Journal], leaving more than $100 million of diocesan property in the hands of the ACNA’s Diocese of Fort Worth. The court’s decision not to hear the case settled what had been a 12-year legal battle.

In 2008, a majority of clergy and lay leaders in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth voted to leave the Episcopal Church over disagreements about the ordination of women and LGBTQ people. The breakaway congregations continued to occupy their buildings.

Most congregations that remained in the Episcopal Church found new places to worship after the split, but six congregations in Fort Worth, Hillsboro and Wichita Falls, remained in their buildings.

Since February, the Fort Worth Episcopalians and members of the breakaway group have been going through the buildings in preparation for the transfer. Like the rest of the dozen-year dispute, that’s been “a fairly complicated, fraught process,” said Katie Sherrod, the Episcopal diocese’s director of communications.

The breakaway group is using the name Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, though it is no longer a diocese of the Episcopal Church. The congregants loyal to the Episcopal Church are using the name Episcopal Church in North Texas.

One of the parishes, All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, is moving to the chapel at All Saints’ Episcopal School. Another, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hillsboro, has been using the back room of a real estate office and plans to move into another commercial building, Sherrod said.

Some of the churches had not held indoor services for a while because of the pandemic. St. Luke’s in the Meadow in Fort Worth had been holding outdoor services and had just begun the process of reopening the building for socially distanced worship when the eviction order came.  

This story was prepared with files from Episcopal News Service.

A reflection on anti-Asian violence

Stop the hate against Asians posters from rally in Summit NJ, March 27. Photo/George Lou/Wikimedia Commons

By Allen K. Shin

Suffragan Bishop Allen K. Shin of the Diocese of New York wrote this message on March 18 to the people of the diocese after a number of violent incidents, including the March 16 mass shooting in Atlanta that included eight Asian-Americans.

Shin

My Brothers and Sisters,

The pandemic this past year has brought many challenges in our lives both personally and collectively.

One thing it has brought to light is the virus of white supremacy and racism which has infected the soul of America for centuries.

It has played out in racial inequalities with a devastating effect on the lives of the people of color in marginalized and underprivileged communities, in terms of COVID infections and deaths, of economic hardship, and even of the vaccine rollouts.

The killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many other African Americans have revealed the insidious nature of the racist structures and systems and of white supremacy in our society.

During the pandemic, we have also seen a dramatic surge of hate crimes against Asians across the country, particularly against the elderly and women. An 86-year-old man from Thailand died after being shoved to the ground in San Francisco. A Filipino man was slashed with a box cutter on the subway in New York City.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a 56-year-old Malaysian man was pushed to the ground and punched in the face on a subway station. Most recently, eight Asians were murdered by a gunman in Atlanta, six of whom were women.

While the overall crime rate has declined from 2019 to 2020, hate crimes against Asians have increased 150%. Since March last year, 3,800 anti-Asian hate crimes have been reported, with 68% of the victims being women.

Violence against Asians is not new. We have seen this before in this country.

The massacre of the Chinese at Rock Springs, Wyoming from Harper’s Weekly 1886, Vol. 29. Photo/Wikipedia/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

The “yellow peril” sentiment of the 19th century fueled many violent incidents against Chinese communities. The Chinese massacre of 1871 resulted in the Chinatown of Los Angeles being ransacked and 20 Chinese men being lynched and hanged.

Those who attended the 2019 Diocesan convention saw the play “Red Altar,” which told the story of the massacre of the Chinese fishing village in Monterey Bay. The village was burned down, and the Chinese people were lynched or driven out.

When the bubonic plague broke out in 1900, the Chinatown in Honolulu was burned down by a mob and the Chinatown in San Francisco was quarantined off so that no Chinese were allowed to leave but were left to die while the white residents were allowed to leave.

The U.S. government also played a role with the enactment of anti-Asian policies such as the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917, and the Japanese Internment of 1942.

As an Asian-American bishop, I am mindful of bringing too much attention to Asian concerns and issues lest people see me as a bishop only for Asians. But I can no longer remain silent. I feel compelled to speak up against the rising anti-Asian hate crimes in our communities.

It has been conveyed to me that the members of the Church of Our Savior in Chinatown (New York), many of whom are elderly, are feeling anxious and living in fear. I cannot express how deeply it hurts and saddens me.

In the fall 2020 edition of the Episcopal New Yorker, I shared a personal experience of being harassed and called “China virus” by a biker as my wife and I were taking walks in the nearby park. I have been called by racist epithets and told to “go home” many times before. Never have I felt so fearful for my life as I have felt this past year.

Despite the fear and anxiety, however, one thing I have learned in this pandemic is to be grateful for life and not take it for granted. I have learned the joy of being alive through simple things.

Easter this year feels so much more meaningful because of that. I have learned the power of gratitude, compassion, and justice.

So I ask for your prayers of solidarity and of compassion and justice for the Asian brothers and sisters in your communities. I ask you to reach out to them with a word of encouragement and comfort.

I ask you to stand up against all forms of racial violence and hatred in our society as I and many other Asians stand with African American brothers and sisters in their continued struggle against the systemic racism and the culture of white supremacy just as the Asian leaders marched alongside the African American leaders in the Civil Rights movement.

Racial justice and healing will be the unavoidable focus of the Church’s mission in the post COVID time. I refuse to let fear take over my life and hatred destroy my faith in the goodness of humanity.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the life-giving power of the crucified Christ. Love is the way of the Cross, and love will win over all hatred. Won’t you join me and stand up against the racist and xenophobic violence that is destroying our common life and humanity?

 

The Bishop of New York, Andrew M.L. Dietsche, and Assistant Bishop Mary D. Glasspool issued this statement of support.

Our dear brothers and sisters,

Over the last year Bishop Shin, our brother Allen, has shared with us some of the incidents of Anti-Asian bias, discrimination, and hatred with which he and Clara have lived during the pandemic. He has shared with us the fear they sometimes have had to feel just by being in public.

These private, intimate narratives have revealed to us the pain which they both have felt in a time when Asians have been scapegoated for a global pandemic which far transcends in scope the blaming or assigning of fault to anyone.

What is clear is that the pandemic has served as a kind of license for racists to give voice to, or to express violently, other, ongoing currents of anti-Asian sentiment, or even hatred, which remain alive and continue in our culture.

The “Red Altar” presentation at our Diocesan Convention of 2019 put before us again the long legacy of discrimination against Asian immigrants, the internment of Japanese, the lynching of Chinese, and the myriad ways in which Asian people have faced the degradations and humiliations of American racism.

We grieve that that racism is still alive in our country. We condemn the violence against Asian people.

We condemn and repudiate the racism against our Asian brothers and sisters. And we are proud to lend our support and love to Allen, and our gratitude for the powerful, personal reflection and testimony he has written as a prophetic word and gift to the Diocese of New York, and to join him in this communication.  

Glass Stations of the Cross shine online

Station 1-Jesus is condemned to dearth, stained glass by Sister Gerardine Mueller

By Sharon Sheridan

COVID-19 temporarily derailed a scheduled Stations of the Cross installation at a new Episcopal chapel in New Jersey. But thanks to technology, Episcopalians throughout the Diocese of Newark have had an opportunity to view and pray with the images throughout Lent.

Station 6-“Veronica, a Gesture of Love” (a woman wipes the face of Jesus)

Sister Gerardine Mueller, a Roman Catholic Dominican nun, created the traditional 14 stations in painted stained glass. The glass panels hang in the chapel at the Caldwell Dominican house in Caldwell, N.J., where Pat Vine saw them while visiting her spiritual director, Sister Gail De Maria.

“I was really impressed,” said Vine, parish administrator and long-time member of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Wayne.

Her spiritual director, who belongs to the Roman Catholic order of Saint Joseph of Peace, photographed the stations and installed the pictures in glass frames lit from behind in a hallway at her motherhouse in Englewood Cliffs. When a fire and lengthy restoration at the house forced the stations’ removal, the photographer offered them to Vine for installation in a chapel being created at St. Michael’s. There, they nearly ended up under wraps again, thanks to the COVID-19 shutdown.

Station 11-Jesus is nailed to the cross

“All these framed pictures were sitting in a bag in the soon-to-be chapel,” Vine said. “I ended up one day thinking, ‘Lord, I really want to do something for Lent. What can I do?’ And the stations came to mind. So I brought them home, took them out of the frames, scanned them and then made up the stations.”

With Mueller’s blessing, Vine created a short e-mail for each station pairing a photograph with a prayer and text by Rina Ristano, FSP, from “The Folly of God: The Journey of the Cross, A Path to Light.” Every three days throughout Lent, Vine has sent one to members of St. Michael’s, an interested neighbor and a number of other individuals throughout the diocese.

Station 13-The body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother

Response has been positive, she said. “One priest responded and said, ‘May I have your permission to send this to my parish?’” She agreed, believing that “the more that would reflect on Christ’s sufferings during Lent, the better.”

Another priest wrote about how touched she was by the prayer for the Sixth Station, where a woman wipes the face of Jesus:

Lord, help us to recognize you in
       the hidden corners of our world.

In the forgotten ones, in those who
       mean too little to the world, whose
     
presence is never greeted with a smile.

We ask that we might reflect your love  
      for all people in everything that we do.

Mueller, now nearly 100 years old, has created art in various media and started and taught in the art department at Caldwell University. An interview with her and photographs of the stations and her other artwork can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/XCizxL2eeJ8

The Rev. Sharon Sheridan Hausman is a priest in the Diocese of Newark.

 

“The Black Church” includes an Episcopal presence

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry appears in “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is our Song,” interviewed by Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Photo/Henry Louis Gates, Jr. via Facebook

By Episcopal Journal

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is among the faith figures in “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song,” a new four-hour, two-part documentary series by noted historian and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The series premieres Feb. 16 and 17 on PBS stations nationwide and is available via PBS on various streaming services.

Gates traces the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America as the source of “African American survival and grace, organizing and resilience, thriving and testifying, autonomy and freedom, solidarity and speaking truth to power.

“The documentary reveals how Black people have worshipped and, through their spiritual journeys, improvised ways to bring their faith traditions from Africa to the New World, while translating them into a form of Christianity that was not only truly their own, but a redemptive force for a nation whose original sin was found in their ancestors’ enslavement across the Middle Passage,” according to the PBS description.

Besides Curry, Gates interviews Oprah Winfrey; musician John Legend; actress Jennifer Hudson, civil rights leaders the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. William Barber II and gospel legends Yolanda Adams, Pastor Shirley Caesar and BeBe Winans.

Gates and Curry discuss the powerful influence of music in the Black church and the emotional pull of traditional spirituals.

“When somebody starts singing in a certain way,” Curry said, “folk, inside, start reacting and responding. And eventually, there may be shouts and there may be silence, but something is moving inside. And that’s where the Black church is found: in those heartbeats.”

“And that heartbeat comes from Africa,” Gates said.

“Straight from Africa,” Curry agreed. “No doubt about it. And it has been integrated with the Christian story and experience.”

Gates himself has Episcopal roots, although he is shown in the series attending his childhood church, Waldon United Methodist Church in Piedmont, W.Va. His mother’s family was from West Virginia.

Gates now is famously the host of “Finding Your Roots,” the PBS show that traces the family histories of celebrity guests.

However, his interest was sparked much earlier. In an article for The New Yorker, written in 2008 and titled “Family Matters,” Gates wrote about his paternal grandfather, Edward St. Lawrence Gates, known as Pop Gates to his family. He lived in Cumberland, Md.

“Pop Gates was buried at the Rose Hill Cemetery, where our forebears were among the very few Negroes allowed to disturb the eternal sleep of Cumberland’s élite white Episcopal citizenry.

“The town’s Episcopal churches had been segregated at least since the black St. Philips offered its first Communion, on June 19, 1910. That day, the church’s records show, Pop, his mother, Maud, his wife, Gertrude Helen Redman, and about half a dozen other Gateses took the Sacrament, which was offered by the Diocese of Maryland’s white bishop.”

His documentary on the Black church, said Gates, is “a systematic exploration of the myriad ways in which African Americans have worshipped God in their own images, and continue to do so today, from the plantation and prayer houses, to camp meetings and store-front structures, to mosques and mega-churches.

“This is the story and song our ancestors bequeathed to us, and it comes at a time in our country when the very things they struggled and died for — faith and freedom, justice and equality, democracy and grace — all are on the line. No social institution in the Black community is more central and important than the Black church,” he said.

Why I love Lent

“Ash Wednesday,” Carl Spitzweg, oil on canvas, 1860. Image/Staatsgalerie Stuttgart/Wikiart

By Pamela A. Lewis

Pamela Lewis

It seems only a few days ago that I took down my Christmas wreath, put away the elf on the shelf (I know – it’s a bit creepy, but it’s still cute.), and stopped being asked, “So how was your Christmas?” Now the question is, “So, what are you giving up for Lent?”

For those like myself who observe Lent, this is the big question at the start and at the heart of the season. It is a personal and deeply important question, one into which all of one’s values, attitudes towards favorite activities, beliefs and behaviors are tightly wrapped. What one gives up (or takes on, as many now do) during Lent is a personal matter, between the individual and his or her conscience, between the individual and God.

The emphasis on self-reflection of this season is one of the reasons why I love Lent. After the the glittering ebullience of Christmas and New Year’s, Lent takes me inward and calls me to be still. While the holidays can leave me breathless, Lent invites me to catch my breath. In the 40 days that unfurl from Ash Wednesday, I engage in a kind of spiritual house cleaning by taking a hard look at the state of my relationship with God, with others, and with myself.

I recently became aware of a painting called “Ash Wednesday,” completed in 1860 by the German artist Carl Spitzweg. It’s significant, when regarding this work, that the day before Ash Wednesday is known in some cultures as Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” the last day of fun and feasting before the penitential season of Lent.

Spitzweg’s canvas depicts a solitary harlequin, still decked out in his colorful and jolly costume and pointed hat (a fool’s cap perhaps), although the festivities of the previous day are over. But when we look more closely, we realize this figure of revelry and excess, with arms folded and head down, is sitting in what appears to be a prison cell.

A shaft of light comes through the cell’s only window and illuminates the lonely figure, who seems deep in thought. His only sustenance is a jug of water. Every element in the painting forcefully outlines and underscores what a traditional Lent involves: self-reflection about and repentance of the “sins” of excess; fasting and self-denial; (re)encountering God.

This view of Ash Wednesday and Lent is severe, uncompromising, and, some might argue, joyless. Yet it is fully in keeping with those tough, uncompromising words the priest utters when imposing the dark ashes on my forehead: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This year, however, will be different. In the Diocese of New York, Bishop Andrew Dietsche has directed that, to avoid the risk of further spreading the coronavirus, the imposition of ashes should be suspended.

Although the Book of Common Prayer expresses no particular instructions regarding ashes, other than their imposition by the minister at the liturgy, the physical distribution of ashes on the foreheads of the faithful is an ages-old practice. Many people look forward to it.

I will miss going to my church, walking up its long center aisle to stand before the priest tasked with dipping his thumb into the ashes, with which he then traces a cross on my forehead while pronouncing those ancient and bracing words.

I admit that I will miss the wondering glances of passersby and other subway commuters to that spot above my nose. I – We – will miss receiving that visible sign that identifies me – us – as Christ’s own. But I also recognize that this loss is yet another necessary one we need to count in order to one day reclaim a greater health. Ash Wednesday and the season it inaugurates is concerned with our unseen, rather than seen, appearance.

On Ash Wednesday, Christians are invited to observe a “holy Lent,” a season of penitence and fasting, a season when they take stock of their lives, pray, read, and meditate on God’s holy Word.

This is solemn, not morose work. It is not a 40-day sentence to sport a scratchy hair shirt, to subsist on a diet of locust crunch, and to wear a dour expression to show how deeply repentant one is. That is a soul-killing Lenten observance that only leaves the observer angry and resentful rather than spiritually cleansed and fulfilled.

As for giving up things, there is more to Lent than simply eschewing chocolate, alcohol or caffeine. While that may be a feature for some observers, there is more to the season than food and drink deprivation. For example, pride, anger, bigotry, wastefulness and pollution of the creation, injustice, cruelty, and indifference to the suffering of others are some of the other greater sins worthy of inclusion on the “giving up” list.

As it is impossible to renounce in one Lent all of the wrong things that compromise my relationship with God and others, I select one or two that I feel could benefit from my undivided attention. That can be a lot if those one or two things keep getting in the way of my having a life that is more whole. But if I am fully honest with myself, I will choose the most important wrong things about myself in need of grace-filled repair.

It is the quest for honesty and truth that inspires my love of Lent. Where so much — too much — around us is unreal, inauthentic and falsified, this is a season that requires truthfulness and reality.
At a time where very little is spiritually or morally required of us, Lent urges us to think deeply, like Spitzweg’s harlequin, about our frailties and the world’s and our brokenness. Perhaps that is why, unlike our other seasons or holidays, Lent has escaped commercialism’s grasp. It cannot be prettified, glamorized or bowdlerized, nor can it be fashioned into a consumer item with a price tag. There are no Lent cards to write and send, no decorations to deck the halls.

Finally, what I also love about Lent is that anyone can engage in what this season offers. There is no need to be a Christian or even a believer to adopt some of its practices.

Discovering the benefits of self-reflection, giving our time and talent to something or someone other than ourselves, and thinking and talking about life’s harder sides can be universal, not just Christian, activities. A season that bids us all to participate in such important, life-enhancing activities deserves our love. n

Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. This article was first published at Grow Christians, www.growchristians.org.

Why Christmas movies are so appealing this holiday season

 

 

James Stewart and Donna Reed star in the 1946 classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Photo/RKO Pictures/Archive Photos/Moviepix/Getty Images

By S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate

With the pandemic limiting travel over the holiday season, many Americans will be settling in front of the television to watch their favorite holiday movies, along with their favorite drink — a cup of hot apple cider or a glass of wine — to add some cheer.

Holiday movies have become an essential part of the American winter celebrations and are likely to be more so for those quarantining this year. The entertainment site Vulture reports 82 new holiday movie releases in 2020. But, even before the lockdown, production of annual Christmas movies was reported to be up by at least 20% since 2017 on a single cable network.

Holiday movies are popular not simply because they are “escapes,” as my research on the relation between religion and cinema argues. Rather, these films offer viewers a glimpse into the world as it could be.

Christmas movies as reflection

From left, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby and Vera-Ellen star in “White Christmas.” Photo/Classic Film/Flickr, CC BY-NC

This is particularly true with Christmas movies.
In his 2016 book “Christmas as Religion,” the religious studies scholar Christopher Deacy states that Christmas movies act as a “barometer of how we might want to live and how we might see and measure ourselves.”

These movies offer a variety of portraits of everyday life while affirming ethical values and social mores along the way.

The 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” — a fantasy film about a man named George Bailey, who has touched the lives of many, despite all his problems — represents visions of a community in which every citizen is a vital component.

Another movie commonly replayed this time of year is 2005’s “The Family Stone,” which portrays the clashes of a mostly average family but shows viewers that quarrels can be worked through and harmony is possible.

The 2003 British holiday film “Love Actually,” which follows the lives of eight couples in London, brings to viewers the perennial theme of romance and the trials of relationships.

Movie-watching as ritual practice
As holiday movies bring viewers into a fictional world, people are able to work through their own fears and desires about self-worth and relationships. Such movies can provide solace, reaffirmation and sometimes even courage to continue working through difficult situations. The movies offer hope in believing it all might turn out all right in the end.

Dr. Seuss’ character the Grinch is seen in a scene from the 1966 TV movie “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” Photo/MGM Animation/Visual Arts

When people see some part of their own lives unfold on screen, the act of viewing operates in a fashion that’s strikingly similar to how a religious ritual works.

As anthropologist Bobby Alexander explains, rituals are actions that transform people’s everyday lives. Rituals can open up “ordinary life to ultimate reality or some transcendent being or force,” he writes in the collection “Anthropology of Religion.”

For example, for Jews and Christians, ritually observing the Sabbath day by sharing meals with family and not working connects them with the creation of the world. Prayer rituals in the Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions connect those praying with their God, as well as with their fellow believers.

Holiday movies do something similar, except that the “transcendent force” they make viewers feel is not about God or another supreme being. Instead, this force is more secular: It’s the power of family, true love, the meaning of home or the reconciliation of relationships.

Movies create an idealized world
Take the case of the 1942 musical “Holiday Inn.” It was one of the first movies — after the silent era’s various versions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — where the plot used Christmas as a backdrop, telling the story of a group of entertainers who have gathered at a country inn.

In reality, it was a deeply secular film about romantic interests, couched in a desire to sing and dance. When it was released, the United States had been fully involved in World War II for a year and national spirits were not high.

The movie hasn’t endured as a classic. However, Bing Crosby’s song “White Christmas,” which appeared in it, quickly became etched in the holiday consciousness of many Americans, and a 1954 film called “White Christmas” became better known.

As historian Penne Restad puts it in her 1995 book “Christmas in America,” Crosby’s crooning offers the “quintessential expression” of the holidays, a world which “has no dark side” — one in which “war is forgotten.”

In subsequent Christmas movies, the main plots have not been set in the context of war, yet there is nonetheless often a battle: that of overcoming a materialistic, gift-buying and gift-giving kind of holiday.
Movies like “Jingle all the Way,” “Deck the Halls” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” center on the idea that the true meaning of Christmas is not in rampant consumerism but in goodwill and family love.
Dr. Seuss’ famously grouchy Grinch thinks he can ruin Christmas by taking all the gifts away. But as the people gather together, giftless, they join hands and sing while the narrator tells viewers, “Christmas came anyway.”

‘All’s right with the world’
Though Christmas is a Christian holiday, most holiday films are not religious in the traditional sense. There is hardly ever a mention of Jesus or the biblical setting of his birth.

Peter Billingsley plays Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.”Photo/MGM/UA

As media studies scholar John Mundy writes in a 2008 essay “Christmas and the Movies,” “Hollywood movies continue to construct Christmas as an alternative reality.”

These movies create on-screen worlds that kindle positive emotions while offering a few laughs.
“A Christmas Story,” from 1983, waxes nostalgic for childhood holidays when life seemed simpler and the desire for a Red Ryder air rifle was the most important thing in the world. The plot of 2003’s “Elf” centers on the quest to reunite with a lost father.

In the end, as the narrator says late in “A Christmas Story” — after the family has overcome a series of risible mishaps, the presents have been unwrapped and they’ve gathered for Christmas goose — these are times when “all’s right with the world.”

At the end of a troubled 2020, and as so many families are physically isolated from their loved ones, people need to believe in worlds in which all’s right. Holiday movies allow a glimpse of such a place.

S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate is professor of religious studies and cinema and media studies, by special appointment, at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. This article was first published at The Conversation (www.theconversation.com).

Why I still watch ‘Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown’

By Pamela A. Lewis

Pamela Lewis

Like many Americans of my generation, I have been a big fan of “Peanuts,” the cartoon created by the late Charles Schulz. As a kid, I impatiently awaited the delivery of the Sunday papers so I could turn immediately to the page where Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Snoopy, and their motley group of friends held court and made me and my parents laugh at their amusing adventures and experiences.

I loved each of the main characters because of the way Schulz designed their physical characteristics: Lucy’s big gaping mouth that either bossed others or was Snoopy’s target for one of his dreaded sloppy wet “kisses”; Charlie Brown with his nearly bald pate and woe-is-me expression; or the rumpled Pig Pen, who was eternally surrounded in a cloud of dust. By some mysterious alchemy, Schulz gave his characters personalities that were at turns irritating and endearing.

The Peanuts gang also came across as real children; they were kids like me who went to school, struggled at times with their lessons, and were mystified by the grownups who raised and taught them. They played games (which Charlie Brown never succeeded in winning), teased one another, and developed crushes (see Lucy and Schroeder).

The Peanuts kids also celebrated our culture’s popular holidays, and in 1965, Charlie Brown and his pals moved from the funny papers to the big time: Television. First, there was the Halloween special It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, where actors gave the gang their unique and now recognizable voices. But Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown would be different, playing to a wider audience and handling a more significant story.

“Christmastime is here, happiness and cheer,” the kids sing in the film’s introduction as they glide in a serpentine, Snap the Whip line across a frozen pond (with Snoopy bringing up the rear). I join my voice to theirs, reveling in every note of composer Vince Guaraldi’s immortal score. I never tire of the uncomplicated melody, which evokes joy, hope and innocence.


Charlie Brown frets to his pal Linus about not knowing what Christmas “is all about.” The commercialization of the season, heavy with bling and glitz, leaves him feeling confused and kind of empty. Even Charlie’s dog Snoopy has his canine pad rigged out with colorful and flashing lights. But for Charlie Brown, something is wrong with this picture. Something is missing. Yes, Charlie, I understand.

Charlie later gets what he thinks is a brilliant idea to solve his problem: put on an old-fashioned Christmas pageant, complete with the Three Wise Men and bleating sheep. “No, no, no!” objects know-it-all Lucy. It’s got to have “Santa Claus, deck them halls, Ho-ho-ho, and pretty girls,” she explains while batting her eyes at her love interest, Schroeder, whose task is to provide the pageant’s music.

Despite his best efforts to organize the pageant, it doesn’t come together. No one cooperates, least of all Snoopy, who prefers dancing atop Schroeder’s piano rather than listening to his master’s instructions.

Charlie and Linus’ trip to the local Christmas tree market to buy one for the pageant doesn’t help matters, either. Shiny and glammed-up trees are everywhere, but there is nothing real or meaningful, except for a bedraggled little specimen whose needles have all but fallen off.

Taking pity on it, Charlie buys and presents it to his “friends,” who laugh it — and him — to scorn. When he places an ornament on one fragile branch, the tree bends deeply, nearly breaking under the bauble’s weight. “Ugh, I’ve killed it,” laments Charlie, believing again that he can’t do anything right, not even choose a good Christmas tree.

“I can tell you what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” says Linus very calmly, as they stand in the school auditorium where the pageant will take place. One spotlight sheds a beam on Linus (now without his trusty security blanket) as he takes to the empty stage. He recites the ancient verses from the Gospel of Luke (2:1-14): “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger …” Finally, Charlie Brown understands.

The pathetic little tree that looked as if it wouldn’t amount to much, then receives a loving and twinkling makeover from the kids, who present it to Charlie Brown. “It isn’t such a bad little tree; it just needed a little love,” says Linus wisely.

While “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” is essentially an animated cartoon, whose characters look funny, and behave broadly, and there are silly noises and pratfalls, Linus’ recitation of Saint Luke’s verses is its solemn core. For a few moments, the story’s busyness is suspended to make room for a larger and more eternal story.

Charles Schulz’s brilliance lies in having none other than Linus, often presented and judged (especially by his sister Lucy) as too babyish and meek to be taken seriously, to declaim the biblical narrative about another and very special child’s birth.

Like the puny tree, which the other kids ridiculed and rejected, Linus emerges from his customary lesser status to be the one who knows the truth about Christmas. He “tells” that truth by reciting the Nativity story. Sometimes it takes a child — a blanket-toting, thumb-sucking Linus sort of child — to remind the Charlie Browns in the world what life, love, and other important things are all about.

This is why I added “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” to my DVD collection, and why watching this animated classic every year over these many decades is one of my cherished Christmas traditions.

Merry Christmas.

Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. This article was first published in the Episcopal New Yorker.

 

Modern-day ‘Old Master’: Painter depicts African-Americans as Bible characters

Called, 2019, Oil on canvas. Photos/Courtesy of Tyler Ballon

By Pamela A. Lewis

The term “Old Master” painters always brings the well-known heavy hitters to mind: Rembrandt, Giotto, da Vinci, Dürer, and Mantegna, who are on the long list of European men (and a few women) who, between the 13th and 19th centuries, produced some of the greatest paintings in Western art.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an “Old Master” was “a pre-eminent artist of the period before the modern; especially a pre-eminent western European painter of the 13th to 18th centuries.”

At first glance, contemporary artist Tyler Ballon may not remind anyone of the traditional image of an “Old Master.” On the day of his Zoom interview with Episcopal Journal, he was clad in a T-shirt bearing the words “God vs. my enemies,” and jeans.

Tyler Ballon is seen in his studio.

From his canvas-packed studio at the Mana Contemporary Center in Jersey City, N.J., the 24-year-old African-American figurative artist turns out large-scale paintings like those that Renaissance and Baroque-era European artists typically produced.

However, the common themes of old master paintings have also strongly inspired Ballon, a Jersey City native and graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. He traces to early childhood his first encounters with these works’ depictions of mythological heroes, and, more specifically, biblical characters and saints. Over the last several years, Ballon has used old master techniques from celebrated works to draw attention to the challenges facing Black Americans.

Ballon grew up in a “challenging environment,” where many of his peers were incarcerated, struggled to support families, or died violently. But he credits his parents (who are both pastors in the Pentecostal church) and his love of art for setting him on a different path.

“Art saved me,” Ballon asserted. At first it was merely a hobby that competed with his other love, boxing. But his now-deceased grandmother, upon seeing a drawing he did of her, encouraged him to “keep it up,” because it would bring him and the family success.

In 2013 and 2014, he received the Young Arts awards (presented by the National Young Arts Foundation in Miami), and since 2014, his work has been included in several group exhibitions in this country and in Sweden.

During his years attending a Roman Catholic grammar school and church, Ballon was exposed to and fell in love with traditional iconography that tells the Bible’s dramatic stories

in stained glass and sculpture. As a high school student, he studied the works of Michelangelo and other great painters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

“I was always very observant, and I noticed and was impressed by their technical skill, use of color, and profound knowledge of the human anatomy, as well as their ability to turn the Scriptures so powerfully into ‘real life’ onto the canvas,” Ballon said.

However, his deep affection and respect for the work of the Old Masters gradually came into conflict with his growing and discomfiting awareness of their Eurocentrism.

“I felt a separation from the art because all of the figures were White people. I loved the work, but none looked like me. It left me feeling excluded from the conversation,” he said.

Representations of what is now often termed the “Black body” in European art have been scant and largely peripheral. Black figures, frequently unidentified, were relegated to the margins, in the background of paintings, or portrayed in servile roles.

One exception is Balthazar, recounted in legend as one of the three magi who brought gifts to the Christ Child. As Ballon explained, “We live in direct relationship to our heroes. If our heroes are in the Bible and yet don’t resemble us in images, we can’t see ourselves as trying to be like them or trying to do what they’ve done.”

Ballon has filled this pictorial vacuum. Using the tools of the old masters — grand canvases and oil paint, and fluently speaking their iconographic language —Ballon has moved Black bodies from the shadowy margins of the canvas to the forefront, portraying (and also honoring) them as biblical characters.

His paintings document the struggle and pain still embedded in the contemporary Black experience, while interpreting these circumstances within the Christian narratives of faith and redemption.

Deposition, 2018

Ballon’s meticulously detailed paintings often evoke the work of American illustrator Norman Rockwell, as well as that of Kehinde Wiley, the African-American artist whose paintings also reference European masterpieces, and whose portrait of former President Barack Obama drew accolades. Ballon is not bothered by the comparison to Wiley, whom he met when he was 18 years old and whom he idolizes for the older artist’s technique and his broad knowledge of art history.

While Ballon draws inspiration from a variety of old master painters, the use of color and light, strong composition, and powerful storytelling seen in works by the renowned Roman Renaissance and Baroque painter Caravaggio (1571-1610), are reflected most prominently in his work.

Ballon brings these elements together to emphasize the pathos and theatricality of The Deposition (2018), one of his most pointedly Caravaggio-inspired works. Here, the mourners, one of whom locks his eyes with ours, are captured in the same fan-shaped arrangement as those in the Italian master’s 1603 The Entombment.

In Ballon’s hands, they have become residents of an African-American neighborhood lamenting over the murdered body of a loved one. As a kind of homage to Caravaggio, who often included himself in his paintings, Ballon has cast himself as the corpse in this work.

With an economy of gesture and expression the artist gives his attention to hands in Called (2019), where another young man (again, the artist), wearing a baseball cap, sits on a damaged set of steps.

Take Up Your Cross, 2020

He is interrupted from counting the money he holds in each hand by a white jacketed but faceless figure who holds a Bible in his right hand while pointing to the young man with his left. Looking up, the young man points to himself, as if to ask, “Who, me?” Inspired by Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), the work represents subtly yet powerfully the decisive moment when the soul is summoned.

Take Up Your Cross (2020) offers an ambiguous portrayal of its subject. Drenched in dramatic, Caravaggesque light, he looks penetratingly at the viewer, appearing to be just another elementary school kid clutching an unusual object he has found. But in truth, he is the young Jesus embracing the instrument of his death.

Mary in Prayer (2018), based this time on Francisco de Zurbáran’s The Young Virgin (1632-33), is a nearly full-length figure work and one of Ballon’s most explicitly devotional images. The open book (suggesting the Scriptures) on Mary’s lap and her hands positioned to receive the Holy Spirit place her solidly in Western iconography, yet Ballon uses her to address current conversations about whose body can embody holiness.

Mary in Prayer, 2017

Although not a member of a faith community, like the message on his T-shirt, Ballon is forthright about his beliefs and self-identifies as a devout Christian who dedicates all of his work to God’s glory.

“God is the source of my gifts and my greatest agent, who brings opportunities to me,” he said. He feels closest to the Old Testament’s Joseph, on whom God bestowed the gift to interpret dreams, whereas Ballon feels that he has received the gift to interpret the Scriptures through his paintings. His goal is to become one of the greatest figurative painters in the art world, and to be a mentor to other young artists. But, again, he said he leaves that in God’s hands.

Ballon is part of a small but growing group of artists who have returned to representing the human form. His models are friends, family, and members of his immediate community, and in his view, the figure expresses most effectively all that can be expressed in life. As was true for these painters from Europe’s past, composition, vivid color, light and gesture are his currency.

Whereas some may accuse the artist of a lack of originality, his references to and evocations of their works are in keeping with past practices of artists borrowing from one another’s masterpieces. After all, imitation is the highest form of praise.

But more importantly, Ballon is contributing meaningfully to the growing interest in and discussions about the lives of African-Americans and other people of color by bringing together their underrepresented bodies and a European art form to tell the Bible’s compelling stories. His work unapologetically affirms that these bodies can portray sacred characters, be the bearers of eternal truths, and can reflect the imago Dei.

Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. She attends Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue in New York.

Bellini’s painting technique embodies Franciscan values

Bellini’s “Saint Francis in Ecstasy” is in the Frick Collection, New York. Image/Wikimedia Commons

By Dennis Raverty

Giovanni Bellini’s “Saint Francis in Ecstasy,” in the collection of the Frick Museum in New York, embodies both the Franciscan sense of poverty and its attitude towards nature, not only in the style and subject matter but also in its pristine, jewel-like oil glazing techniques.

It was painted at some time in the last few decades of the 15th century and so stands at a pivotal historical point, near the end of the early Renaissance, and just on the threshold of the High Renaissance in Italy. It represents the 13th century saint alone at the mouth of his cave retreat. Having just stepped outside, he witnesses the early dawn as if it were an unexpected miracle.

In the background, we see the charming hilltop town of Assisi in central Italy from which he came. Much has been written about both the style and the iconography of this magnificent painting, but I want to discuss it here principally in terms of its technique and how the oil glazing method Bellini used embodies Franciscan ideology and values.

A close-up of Saint Francis from Bellini’s “saint Francis in Ecstasy.” Image/Wikimedia Commons

Although oil paint is now a revered traditional technique (having been practiced for centuries), at the time Bellini worked, oil paint methods were the new, cutting-edge technology originating far away in the Netherlands. Only a few Italians at that time had even experimented with the new medium, which mixed pulverized colored pigments in a base of linseed oil and varnish that binds the powdered color together and adheres it to the work’s surface.

The standard media for early Renaissance panel painting in Italy was tempera. In tempera, the binder is egg yolk instead of oil, and it dries very quickly, so it demands a rapid, dry-brush technique of application. But oil paint dries much more slowly, and certain additives can speed up or slow down drying so the artist has more control over the timing of the painting’s execution and can lavish more attention on details and nuances of color.

During the Renaissance, however, oil paint was not applied freely to the canvas or panel as it is today, but was glazed in thin transparent layers of paint laid down one over the other, allowing some of the underpainting to be visible through all the other layers, giving it that luminous, jewel-like effect.

Da Vinci’s unfinished “Saint Jerome in the Wilderness” is in the Vatican Museums. Image/Wikimedia Commons

Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting, “Saint Jerome,” in the collection of the Vatican Museums, offers a rare glimpse into the oil painting techniques used by Italian artists in the first stages of a work. Initially, Leonardo covered the entire panel with a warm yellow ochre ground, after which he established the broad darks and lights of the composition with earth browns.

Next Leonardo would presumably have glazed in the local colors for the skin, the sky, the lion’s fur, the rocks, and so forth, but allowing some of the ochre underpainting to remain visible, shining through the various transparent glazes, giving greater overall coloristic unity to the finished painting.

In Bellini’s “Francis in Ecstasy,” there is a coloristic dialogue between the warm amber foundation (more intensely orange-yellow than in the Leonardo) and the cool grey-blue and brown glazes he layers over this underpainting in articulating the main masses and elements of the landscape.

But because blue typically seems to recede while yellow appears to push forward, the amber underpainting almost gives the effect of the light coming from behind the picture, softly illumining the entire landscape in all its minute, lucid, naturalistic detail, so lovingly labored over, and echoing the gentle light of the emergent dawn.

The attentiveness Bellini shows to every detail is typical of Netherlandish art, but is somewhat rare in Italian art, where the landscape setting is often minimal — just enough of a background to situate the figures in a believable space.

The landscape here, however is rendered in all its marvelous, minute, rich, naturalistic detail. This truth to nature, with each leaf and blade of grass so lovingly and realistically rendered with all its imperfections, embodies the Franciscan reverence for nature and a respect for creation that Bellini shares with the saint.

In yet another respect Bellini parts with tradition in this painting. It was customary during the Italian Renaissance to idealize forms as a way of indicating the presence of divine grace. Images of Christ, his mother and the saints would all resemble the idealized gods of the ancient Greco-Roman world, like Apollo and Aphrodite (Botticelli’s contemporaneous painting comes to mind).

But Saint Francis in Bellini’s picture is a homely man of small stature, with a crooked nose and a balding pate, hardly the Adonis we might reasonably expect from an Italian master. But this lack of idealization is also in keeping with Franciscan humility, the modest saint as he is represented here is remarkably un-beautiful — not dominating the landscape, but living harmoniously within nature’s bounty as brother and fellow creature.

In Bellini’s hands, not only the diminutive, homely saint, but also the animals, birds, plants and even the sun itself seem almost to be incarnations of the divine, and the “poor,” commonplace materials used in the making of the picture — wood, oil, pigments, varnish — are themselves transformed and transfigured by the artist sacramentally, so that the painting itself is a sort of “incarnational” witness revealing the Christ potential in all living things. As the saint himself puts it in his famous Canticle of Brother Sun:
By mother earth my Lord be praised,
governed by Thee, she hath upraised
what for Man’s life is needful.
Sustained by thee through every hour,
She bringeth forth herb, fruit and flower.

Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries.