And [Jesus] cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. ~Mark 1:34
The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse) oil on canvas, c.1886-1908
Albert Pinkham Ryder, 1847-1917
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, America was engaged in rapid growth in the areas of manufacturing, commerce, and the building of railroads. The arts were not a priority. Serious artists were likely to go to Paris to absorb the culture and milieu during an era that brought great changes in the arts of Europe. Artists who remained in America often studied in New York City and then lived there, or nearby, as they built careers and established reputations.
Like the bohemian life in Paris, artists in New York’s Greenwich Village lived in a place where they could work, socialize, and be unencumbered by the expectations and values of society at large. For most of his adult life, Albert Pinkham Ryder, lived in The Village and was dedicated to painting. He had no desire to pursue fame, or accumulate material wealth. While his contemporaries in France, the Impressionists, were going outside to paint the effects of sunlight, Ryder stayed indoors and most of his images developed from within himself. An exception was TheRace Track that he painted as the result of a direct experience.
Ryder often dined at a hotel in The Village where his brother was the proprietor. In a conversation one evening, he learned that his waiter gambled on horses and was excited about a much publicized race that would be held the following day. The waiter was going to place his entire savings on a horse that he believed would win. On the day after the race, Ryder returned to the hotel but the waiter was not there. When he inquired, he was told the favored horse came in third and the man lost his entire savings. He was unable to cope with his loss and took his own life.
Ryder’s painting, The Race Track, also known as, Death on a Pale Horse, depicts a lone skeleton-like figure on horseback carrying a scythe and circling the race track in a reverse direction. The track’s fence is broken in two places and the landscape is barren except for a lone dead tree. The race track, a metaphor for life, circles endlessly. In the foreground, a snake represents symbolically Satan, temptation, and betrayal. The man that took his life was possessed with gambling and to Ryder, the race track was, in effect, his death. As in the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, Ryder has placed the figure of death on a pale horse.
Generally acknowledged as Russia’s greatest iconographer, Andrei Rublev was born around 1365 near Moscow. His “writing” persists to this day.
Generally acknowledged as Russia’s greatest iconographer, Andrei Rublev was born around 1365 near Moscow. While very young he entered the monastery of The Holy Trinity and in 1405, with the blessing of his igumen (the Orthodox equivalent of abbot), he transferred to the Spaso-Andronikov monastery where he received the tonsure and studied iconography with Theophanes the Greek and the monk Daniel. Among his most revered works are those in the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir.
The icon (“image” in Greek) is central to Orthodox spirituality. It finds its place in liturgy and in personal devotion. An icon is two dimensional and despite being an image of someone it is not a physical portrait. Western art, especially since the Renaissance, has sought to represent figures or events so that the viewer might better imagine them. A western crucifix seeks to enable us to imagine what Golgotha was like. Icons seek to provide immediate access to the spiritual and the divine unmediated by the human, historical imagination. Read more
Holy Women, Holy Men
The Collect for the Commemoration
Holy God, we bless you for the gift of your monk and icon writer Andrei Rublev, who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, provided a window into heaven for generations to come, revealing the majesty and mystery of the holy and blessed Trinity; who lives and reigns through ages of ages. Amen.
Today’s Collect simply give thanks for “the gift of …monk and icon writer Andrei Rublev.” As we view his writing, and the writings of others in icons throughout the Church, let us always give thanks for the gift of individuals with a wonderful talent to open the heavens for us. ~Fr. Dan
Our faith, our story, seen through the eyes of Duccio.
The Nativity (with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel), 1308-1311, egg tempera, Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1255-1319
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Duccio’s “Nativity” was once part of the Maesta (Majesty) which served as an altarpiece for the Cathedral of Siena, Italy. When the painting was completed in 1311, it was composed of a very large panel of the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints and angels. Its base – called a “predella” (Italian for “foot stool” which it resembled) – was below the main panel. It served physically to support the altarpiece and visually to depict seven scenes of the birth and early life of Christ. In its original form, an Old Testament prophet stood to the right of each event holding a scroll on which a passage written by him pertained to the scene.
Duccio’s “Nativity,” the second scene in the predella, takes place in a grotto with Mary reclining on a red cushion in a royal robe of blue. In keeping with the practice of increasing a person’s size in accordance with their importance, she is much larger than the other figures. In the manger, the baby Jesus is being watched over by an ox and an ass and many angels have gathered above them; some are looking heavenward in praise and others are leaning over for an adoring glance at the baby. A small star is at the peak of the cave entrance with its rays shining onto the face of Jesus. Below the figure of Mary are two related scenes. On the left, two midwives are bathing the newborn Jesus and on the right, angels are announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds as they stand with a sheepdog and their flock. On the left side, Joseph is sitting outside of the grotto in a pink robe, To the right of this scene is a painting of Ezekiel holding a scroll with his words; “This gate shall be kept shut: it shall not be opened, and no man may pass through it.”
In the early eighteenth century, the Maesta altarpiece was taken apart in order to divide it between the two altars of the Cathedral of Siena. During this process, damage was caused and some parts of the painting became separated and lost. Other sections were purchased and placed in museums. One of the results is Isaiah now is not with the scene to which he and his words belong. The scroll he is holding states; “Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” and he was placed originally at the immediate right of the “Annunciation,” (the first scene of the predella). He was separated from it and is now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC standing next to the “Nativity.” Isaiah is not looking toward the birth of Jesus because in the original he was looking toward the Archangel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. The painting of the “Annunciation,” to which his words of prophecy apply is an ocean away in the National Gallery of London without its accompanying prophet, Isaiah.
Posting to resume in the Season of Epiphany (2018).
With determination (and hope) posts will again appear on our Hear the Spirit site as the Season of Epiphany (2018) begins. We invite you to come, read, and comment as you “Keep Learning” and growing in Christian maturity.
Like many of you, I woke up this morning having Guardian Angels on my mind, whose memorial the church sets before us today. Like most of you, I woke up this morning to news of the carnage in Las Vegas. It seems almost impossible to hold the two together – until, that is, I remembered the startling painting by Hugo Simberg, “The Wounded Angel” (1903), which I saw in the Finnish National Gallery a couple of years ago. The painting shows an angel on a stretcher carried by two boys. The angel’s wing is torn, the eyes are covered by a bandage, and the figure leans heavily on the stretcher.
This morning, I see many Guardian Angels like that, being carried away, wounded and exhausted, in Las Vegas.
Some people seem to think this is divine retribution for the sins of humanity: Kirk Cameron, former child actor, said in a video on Facebook that Hurricane Harvey and Irma were “a spectacular display of God’s immense power” and were sent so human beings could repent. Earlier, after seeing the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, conservative Christian pastor John McTernan had noted that “God is systematically destroying America” out of anger over “the homosexual agenda.”
It is true that many religious traditions, including Judaism and Christianity, have seen natural disasters as divine punishment. But, as a scholar of religion, I would argue that things aren’t that simple.
The Genesis flood
Some of the earliest narratives of divine retribution go back to 2000 B.C. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of a catastrophic flood.
The gods decide to bring rain down to end the “uproar” of humankind. But the god of the waters, Enki, warns the righteous man, Utnapishtim, about the impending disaster.
Utnapishtim saves himself and his family by constructing a boat.
Elements of this story are later echoed in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Genesis. God is angry because the Earth is filled with violence caused by human beings and vows to “destroy both them and the Earth.”
Noah is a “blameless” man, and God tells him to build an ark that would be large enough to hold his family and “two of all living creatures.” Although humanity perishes in a deluge, Noah preserves life on Earth.
It might seem straightforward to say that natural disasters in the Bible are associated with God’s anger, but that means missing the complexity of the text.
“Never again will I destroy all living creatures.”
This promise not to destroy humankind is also referred to in the Book of Isaiah, the Israelite prophet and seer. In a vision, God says that just as he vowed to Noah that water “would never again cover the Earth,” so too he promises not “to be angry.”
Biblical approaches to suffering
The question of God’s anger is intimately connected to the problem of human suffering. After all, how can a loving God cause indiscriminate human misery?
The Hebrew Bible recognizes that people suffer often through no fault of their own. Most famously, Psalm 42 is an extended lament about suffering that nonetheless concludes by praising God.
The Hebrew Bible’s views on suffering cannot be encapsulated by a single message. Sometimes suffering is caused by God, sometimes by Satan and sometimes by other human beings. But sometimes the purpose behind suffering remains hidden.
The Christian tradition also provides diverse answers to the issue of suffering.
The New Testament does refer to the Genesis flood when talking about God punishing human beings. For example, Paul the Apostle observes that God brought the flood on “the ungodly” people of the world. Earthquakes are also mentioned as signs of the end of time in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
“God heals the sicknesses and the griefs by making the sicknesses and the griefs his suffering and his grief.”
So, instead of dwelling on God’s wrath, we need to understand God’s kindness and mercy. And that, in times of crises and distress, it is kindness and mercy that require us to reach out to those who need comfort and assistance.
This is an updated version of a piece originally published on Sept. 6, 2017.
The Angel of Death and the First Passover, was one of four hundred illustrations in Charles Foster’s book, Bible Pictures, and What They Teach Us (1914)
The Angel of Death and the First Passover,
engraving, c. 1897, C. Schonhew, 19th century
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
When the time came for the Israelites to leave Egypt and be free from slavery, Moses and Aaron were told about the Passover. God gave them specific instructions with regard to what the people of Israel were to do. A lamb was to be killed, prepared, and then eaten. Blood from the lamb was to be placed on the lintel and door posts of each home. If doors were not marked, the firstborn child and animal of the home would be struck down. C. Schonhew’s engraving depicts the angel of death casting an ominous shadow as it glances at a door to see if it has been marked. Within the home, a Hebrew family is preparing to partake of the Passover meal.
In this engraving, we are attracted first to the activity of an angel patterned after a classical goddess. If she were without wings, had a bow and quiver, and in a wooded area, she could pass easily for the Roman goddess, Diana. To the left, a sphinx seems to be observing the angel as it passes by with sword in hand. The dead figure near its base indicates the person’s doorway was not marked. In addition to the sphinx, references to Egypt are in the background. An obelisk and a wall with marks suggesting hieroglyphics inform us of the culture in which the Passover took place. The tip of a pyramid is beyond the wall.
To the right of the angel is a less active scene. Through an arched opening we see a family gathered solemnly around a table. A tray with a roasted lamb is in the center and the head of the family is leading them in their first Passover meal. They seem to be unaware that the angel of death is passing by their home at the very moment. In order to present separate activities simultaneously, Schonhew divided the engraving into two contrasting areas. On the left, the angel is in motion. There is a sense of urgency about her movements and she is surrounded by dramatic lighting. In contrast, figures on the right are standing still with heads bowed.
The architecture of the interior is in keeping with the exterior but in order to present a direct view of the family, Schonhew departed from two point perspective by aligning the arched wall with the picture plane. This frames the scene and separates it to focus attention on the family. At first glance it may seem we are viewing the interior through a “picture window” but plate glass was not available until the seventeenth century. During the time of Moses, windows would have been simple openings in the wall with no glass.
Note: The Angel of Death and the First Passover, was one of four hundred illustrations in Charles Foster’s book, Bible Pictures, and What TheyTeach Us (1914). Many of the artists responsible for the work published in Foster’s book were not identified. Schonhew’s name is known only because he signed the above work. Efforts to locate biographical information about Schonhew have not been successful.