THE ONE WHO SEES ME

391px-Anselmi-Christ_and_Woman_of_Samaria

`And, may I add, we had no running water, for example. You had to fetch water in a bucket from the well – which is a wonderful way to learn the value of water.’  

Werner Herzog, filmmaker

 

What I want to do is wrap up these reflections on the `woman at the well’ story found in the fourth chapter of John’s gospel. However, I want to take a bit of a meandering route….something like a river.

 

THERE IS A RIVER.

There is a long subterranean poem about different kinds of water running through several chapters in the Gospel of John. For John, Jesus inaugurates His ministry by turning well water into wine at a village wedding, and then declares its terms by overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple. He points out to Nicodemus (and those with him) that ritual washing/baptism of repentance must be supplemented with genuine spiritual rebirth.  Later in that same section His cousin picks up the wedding scene imagery to remind critics that he is only the   `the friend of the bridegroom.’  Jesus then does something that carries hints and echoes of several Old Testament betrothal narratives.  He turns up as an exhausted, thirsty traveler by a well in `enemy territory.’ Nonetheless, He is still  the suitor/Bridegroom….and the Samaritan woman  the potential `bride.’ John draws our attention to the play of words and meanings shifting around the kind of water that Jesus offers the woman. Once again in Jerusalem and close to the sheep pool (and in the shadow of the law?) we are reminded that ritual washing and even `miracle’ water are no substitute for engaging and encountering the person of Jesus.  In the section that follows,  Jesus supernaturally feeds thousands of families, but only His immediate circle  get to see Him walking on water.  In some cultures well or river water, or baptismal font has benign meaning or spiritual potency. It is the larger bodies of water that symbolize untamed spiritual power or chaos. Jesus walks on the surface of this `chaotic’ water demonstrating His `Lordship’ over the wind and the waves….and also suggesting the image of Moses potentially leading Israel through the Red sea. The limitations of this `Moses’ reference  surface when Jesus encounters the crowd he had previously fed.  They had very clear, somewhat limited ideas about what His Lordship and spiritual power `should’ mean in terms of their opposition to Rome. They walk away when Jesus talks to them about a deeper level of engagement with Him.  Then John talks about a temple feast where Jesus describes Himself as the source of a fountain of living water. This leads into a  controversial story about an adulterous woman He is called upon to `judge.’  He `writes in the dust’ the names of all who depart from Him, those who forsake this fountain of living water (compare John 8:1-11 with Jeremiah 17:13)

In the next section, water has changed shape and symbolic value again, and is now a pool called `Sent’ and a man born blind has to make his way there and wash the mud from his eyes. The blind man, like the earlier paralytic is made well, but he is also thrust into a world of uncertainty and alienation from culture and tradition. John’s somewhat fluid adaptation (pun intended) of the water metaphor  in various narrative settings  throws  growing light upon the person of Jesus and the consequences of following Him. Even the pool called `Sent’ carried echoes of earlier symbols and traditions. At one level the pool was `fed’ by a secret aqueduct carved into the temple construction by Hezekiah. He was intent on protecting the water supply into the city. At another level, some have caught a reference to the `gentle stream’ that the prophet Isaiah describes Israel as metaphorically turning away from… prior to their conquest and domination by a foreign political power.

 

THE BABY AND THE BATHWATER

The idea of poetry and multiple layers of significance in Scripture are welcomed by some, viewed more cautiously by others. It was the calcified layer upon layer  of scholarly elaboration and commentary on  the Scriptures of Israel that formed part of the `tradition of the elders’  that Jesus kicked against, saying it  painted a distorted picture of God, and put too much power in the hands of the gatekeepers. The church fathers argued among themselves when it came to synthesizing the different interpretive traditions for scripture. Much later, these synthesized traditions, combined with abuses of ecclesiastical power paved the way for a Reformation.  Some  emphasized an approach to Scripture that involved   collapsing the interpretive layers  into a historically and textually informed  plain sense.

We can learn much by patiently exploring these histories….and learning their lessons. But we can lose much if we do not remain open to what authors like John are doing.

AND HERE WE END. 

In our exploration of the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, we have dipped into cultural history, social science background and also literary allusion and visual art composition in our attempts to deepen our reading and our hearing of the different echoes woven there. In our journey we have touched on the lives of the hero/ancestors of Israel and their wedding stories…in order to suggest that Jesus, as described by John, was the `true bridegroom’ and the real source of `living water.’ Finally we can go back beyond even those stories to a story concerning the founding patriarch of Israel, Abraham himself. Abraham, as you know, was made promises by God. When Abraham trusted God, things went well. When he tried to help God out…….not so much. He and his wife Sarah were promised a child, even in their late years. Things were not progressing according to Abraham’s timetable, so he thought he would move things along by impregnating his handmaid, Hagar. Success. But then Sarah also had a child. This was the one promised by God.  Tension grew between the women of the household. Hagar’s child, Ishmael, fought with the child of promise, Isaac.  Abraham   ended up telling Hagar and child to go. Hagar packed her bags and left. Eventually, the supplies Abraham had given them for the journey ran out. She was alone with her child in the desert. According to the Genesis author she was alone, desperate and facing the bleakest possible future when an angelic being appeared to her, and provided water for her and the child. Hagar gave her mysterious provider a name. If we allow that it was God who undertook on her behalf…then the name `El Roi’ …The One who sees me’ might be one of the earliest names for God we have in the Bible. (See Genesis 16)

I am not alone is hearing an echo of the well story in John 4 here. This story, among others, reminds us that God meets people at points of desperate need. We do not need to speculate how much the woman at the well was in dire straits….in spite of her bold front.  Her words to the villagers about meeting a man who told her everything about her life suggests that there was a depth to the conversation that John barely touches.  John was intent on reminding us that it was Jesus Himself  who initiated this forbidden conversation , and that He was the one who was tired, thirsty and alone when He initiated it.

A FEW MORE THOUGHTS ON THE WOMAN AT THE WELL STORY.

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In our previous explorations of the well-known story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, we have looked at how art and literature might provide us with tools for deepening our understanding  of what we find there.  Please  refamiliarize yourself with the story. It also might be helpful if you go back and read the previous blogs, just to get a sense of  what I am trying to do. I am not attempting an exhaustive commentary. I  am just digging around beneath the surface of the story , and talking about some of the things I discover.

In the book of proverbs, the sage instructs us to feed our enemy if they are hungry, and if they are thirsty give them something to drink. The explanation is that in doing so we will heap `coals of fire upon their head. This is less about hair singeing and revenge, and more about providing `life essentials’ hospitality  so that the `enemy’ will be shamed into rethinking their status and consider becoming a friend.

When Jesus shows up at the ancestral well side in Schechem He is not only alone and thirsty. He might well be seen as `the enemy.’ An `enemy’ asking for a drink…….

The  woman speaks out. She describes the invisible `border wall’ between them.  She is female. A Samaritan. Ethno cultural origins and gender should get in the way of a conversation like this.  There are no dealings between Jews and Samaritans.

Jesus’s opening gambit, according to our storyteller, got this woman to put some important cards on the table.

(Sorry…since seeing `Crazy Rich Asians’ I’ve now got game theory, tribal and family traditions, and honor/shame categories on my mind.)

For John’s early audiences, it was the other way round. The Samaritan was regarded as the enemy. The tradition of enmity between them can be traced to stories of origin, as well as recent political outrage. …According to one ancient story in the second book of Kings, the king of Assyria had deported the Israelite inhabitants of the land of Samaria and repopulated the land with members of five other nations. These groups brought their own idolatrous worship practices, which they were forced to modify and combine with the worship of `the one true God. ’   This new population also developed a counter narrative in which they were the `true worshippers,’ with `correct’ temple location and deeper fidelity to the fundamentals of the Law. More recently, during the reign of Antiochus there was an attempt to impose Hellenistic customs  upon the Israelites, leading to profanation of the temple and resulting in  pushback/ the `Maccabean revolt.’ The Samaritans avoided being drawn into the conflict by disavowing any association with Israel.

So, there are stories of origin, contested `worship’ narratives and political distancing… Suffice to say, there was no love lost between these people groups.

We  might  even pick up an echo  of some of these traditional tensions below the surface of the exchange between Jesus and this woman.

But wait, there’s more…….

For me, some of these background details give this familiar `well’ story that third dimension. So do the categories `shame’ and `honor.’   I am suggesting that we look for  emphasis on  these things as we reflect on the cultural background  of the Biblical story. We might  well classify this woman as `guilty.’….Why would she be ashamed, according to her cultural norms?

The woman is described as someone who is shamed in different ways.

She has been through multiple marriages. (In addition to this , she is past the acceptable number) Different Biblical scholars have given different reasons for these multiple marriages. Some suggest adultery. Others propose   that the marriages were childless. She would be blamed.  Impurity and/or infertility are both (equally?) shame factors.

Her ancestors worshipped non Israelite Gods. Some  commentators have suggested that the reference to `five husbands’ was an subtle jab  at the five nations  the King of Assyria relocated to Samaria…….the nations and their Gods. The  reference  to a `sixth who is not your husband’  had more to do with recent  strategically advantageous political liaisons (up to and including Rome?) and less to do with current live in boyfriends.  Let me suggest  that this use of oblique symbolism and imagery (on the part of Jesus, and the storyteller)  might be consistent with the earlier multilevel use of `living water.’

Nonetheless

In this narrative world (or narrated scene) it  is fair to say that in the honor/shame system this woman  cannot win for losing.

In addition, it is fair to say she had a mouth on her. When Jesus confronted her about her `five husbands’ some commentators suggest that she was embarrassed by the `reveal’ and tried to `save face’ by changing the subject. According to these commentators she begins by conceding the depth of His insight `I see you are a prophet’ and then veers off   to talk about mountains and temples.

Other commentators pick up more of a sarcastic edge to her words. Her initial pushback acknowledges (?) Jesus’s adroit way of summing up her personal situation (or community’s political situation) but then she presses him for insight into the long standing tensions between the two communities.  If those who pick up an edge to her tone are right, then she is still `in character’  as described by the storyteller.

Whatever assumptions we might make about the woman’s attitude  and her lifestyle, we have to keep in mind that this does not (or should not) preclude the idea of this woman asking intelligent theological questions. She is self-aware, informed, and curious.  Also, she is  transparent enough  in her  testimony to her fellow villagers.  (so…)What else did she and Jesus actually talk about?   What kind of worshippers truly `honor’ God with their worship?  Where does all  of the above   place her in the `spirit and truth’ grid?

NEXT UP …….`THE GOD WHO SEES ME’

WE INTERRUPT THIS BROADCAST.

Hopefully, for an important message………

broadcast interrupted

 

A version of this section was published as a standalone’ piece just over two years ago, as `Dead ends and roadblocks.’ I am reposting it because   a:  it is still relevant for some of us…  b:  it uses the story under consideration as a springboard   … aaand c: it serves as an interlude/ breathing space  before we  drill down into Samaritans, multiple husbands, temples, mountains,  and living water.

​In the fourth section of his story about Jesus, John tells us He went on a journey.  In order to get to Galilee Jesus `has to go through Samaria.’

In my last post I  suggested that Jesus went into  Samaria in order to outmaneuver  the religious authorities that were taking an interest in His doings.  This strategic sidestep  opened the door for a significant conversation.

I also suggested that John delights in helping us see  how delays, roadblocks and strategic sidesteps all get woven into the larger patterns and purposes of the story he is telling.

However, I want to begin things here by reflecting on seeming roadblocks, delays and detours in our own lives. Perhaps these, too, can be part of a larger pattern.  Perhaps they might play a significant role in helping or allowing our own practice or creativity to flourish.

I finished high school, enrolled in art school, and began to think seriously about Christian spirituality during what was dubbed `The Swinging Sixties. ’ When I completed my studies at art school in the mid-1970s, the psychedelic hippie era had been eclipsed by the hard-edged punk rock revolution. These were interesting times.

One of the many films I saw during those years comes to mind as I begin to reflect on John’s story of detours and possible delays.

Film director Pier Paolo Pasolini made THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW in 1964. Pasolini was a highly creative artist, poet, and filmmaker who rose to prominence in postwar Italy. His social values and political sympathies tilted decidedly to the left, and he was gay. At one level all this is incidental. At another level, it makes his choice of this subject matter and his approach to the subject a little surprising.  His films were known for exploring and pushing the   limits and boundaries of the medium. They pushed /challenged the boundaries of decency, and threw down a gauntlet to the prevailing social and economic structures of the time. Accordingly, this man was no friend of the church or established Religion.

Nonetheless, when Pope John XXIII extended a conciliatory hand to non-Catholic artists, and sought dialogue with them, Pasolini accepted the invitation to go the town of Assisi for a meeting.

This meeting was arranged, but once word got out that the Pope was in town, the streets were jammed full of traffic and Pasolini was forced to stay in his hotel room…with nothing to do but read the one book he found there. It was during that no doubt frustrating time that the director was inspired to make a film that would be faithful to its source material (he chose Matthew of the four gospels) while remaining faithful to the director’s radical visions about art and society. He shot the film `neo realist’ style in black and white. He cast local people and `actors’ with no professional training. The scripted dialog stayed close to its Matthean roots, and the musical soundtrack drew upon a variety of sources ranging from folk, blues, and classical. The film, in my opinion is uncompromising in its artistic integrity, and singular in its luminous beauty. It married a faithful commitment to media and `limited’ means to a deep connection to its underlying story. This was no sugary Technicolor Hollywood epic.

The film continues to `resonate’ (some fifty years on!) in the hearts and minds of those that see it…regardless of their personal belief or current lack of it.

We can reflect on the fact  that this film was birthed  out of a seeming dead end/roadblock in which a frustrated film director , trapped in a hotel room, looked around for something to read.

Perhaps there are other things we can reflect on, as well.

Pasolini was later asked by (skeptical?) journalists, why he, of all people, had tackled such religious subject matter in his film. This is how he replied.

“If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has nostalgia for a belief.”

200px-Pasolini_Gospel_Poster

 

JACOB’S WELL

 

Jacob’s Wellwellside

This is the fourth `look’ into the well-known story from the gospel of john….Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman by a well. So far, we have looked at how insights from art history and literary theory might deepen our hearing of the story, and if you really want to make sense of what we begin to explore here, then going back and reading the earlier sections `in reverse order of posting’ might help.

What I suggested last time was the story at the end of john 3 sets up the `main story’ in John 4. The hints of group conflict, and then the echoes of wedding imagery in John the Baptist’s remarks all prepare the ground for what comes next.

In this  next section, Jesus `has’ to travel through Samaria. If you consult some Biblical commentaries, or bring it up for conversation in a group study, you will learn that Jesus’s apparent detour was all part of God’s plan to reach out to a marginalized people group. This may well be the case, but if you are  listening to John tell this story ,along with other   stories about religious authorities, group infighting, temple clearing  (John 2) and night visits  from cautiously appreciative  Bible teachers (and their circles of followers) you could be forgiven for thinking that  this was simply a strategic maneuver on Jesus’s part. He is avoiding confrontation with the authorities. It is one of a cluster of stories John tells that puts Jesus in charge of His own timetable. Sometimes he uses subterfuge….as with his skeptical brothers who urge him to go to a temple feast.  Other times, He simply gives the impression that getting involved with a local situation is simply not on his `to do’ list….like that village wedding, for example… or (later) visiting a mortally sick friend (until too late)

Here, Jesus, as a result of His  attempt to outmaneuver inquisitive religious authorities, ends up alone, tired and thirsty by the side of a well.  In the wrong part of town.

John’s editorial asides give us insight into his audience. Some needed some clarification on who was doing all that baptizing (not Jesus. Are we hearing a hint re: the disciples and their aspirations?) Some needed to know why Jesus would even speak to a woman who came to the well (the disciples had gone into town.) Others needed to know what all the fuss was about (actually, Jews and Samaritans do not get along) So….we get the sense of a mixed audience….some who were sympathetic (still) to John the Baptist,  and a mixture of those familiar with Jewish traditions and customs and those who were not.

In this story, Jesus is alone, tired and thirsty by a well, and   appeals to the first person to show up to give him a drink. It is a woman, and while at one level, this interaction seemed very politically incorrect….at another level it drew upon some imagery and narrative that was   part of the listening community’s   deeper metanarrative.

There are echoes of several Old Testament stories and themes running through this scene. In these earlier stories, key figures such as Isaac, Jacob, and Moses found marriage partners in settings like this one (See Genesis 24, 29 and Exodus 2, respectively). Commentators point out resemblances between these founding/grounding stories in Israel’s history and this vignette involving water, wells, women, and a very thirsty Jesus. According to these commentators, the storyteller is connecting Jesus, at one level, to those   historical figures in the Israelite metanarrative. At another level, he is suggesting  that  Jesus is the `True Bridegroom. ’ John’s earlier story of a village wedding echoes here as does the Baptists’s speech about being the bridegroom’s friend.

Of course, if the storyteller is outlining a scenario on which Jesus steps into the role of the `Bridegroom’ then one might hope that the woman follows suit. The Old Testament characters, Rebekah (Isaac via his servant) Rachel (Jacob) and Zipporah (Moses) all came to the well with companions, virginal purity, an offer of hospitality and the potential of family/clan connections. Some of these hopes, at least initially, are dashed when the Samaritan woman opens her mouth. While she appears knowledgeable about all the reasons why Jesus should not even be speaking to her, she seems to share something of the `informed obtuseness’ of the earlier Nicodemus  in her incapacity to drill down beyond the surface meanings of Jesus’s words about providing living water. In fact, for the astute listener, it is her abrasive tongue, and the story’s location  that might bring still other associations to mind.

While there are multiple ancestral betrothal narratives echoing in a story Scholars suggest that the one about Jacob that seems especially relevant.

For example, some of the storyteller’s  listeners here might (already) be picking up a faint echo  from a story about  an earlier encounter between Jesus and   a  rank skeptic, Nathaniel,  who  nonetheless, gets described as `a true Israelite.’ However, instead of rhetorical questions about `anything good coming out of Nazareth’ the listener hears this woman say   `How do you hope to give me a drink? You don’t even have a bucket!’

She takes it further. She asks Jesus how He thinks He   measures up against   `our ancestor’ Jacob, who `gave us this well….’ She is of course  (comically) unaware that she is in the presence of someone to whom `the Father has given ALL things’. In John’s telling, she is in full flight, speaking and acting almost as a living `deconstruction’ of Israel’s   metanarrative, with  its  demure virginal figures who met their future husbands in a place such as this.

However, the story is in for a further twist or two… Her `marital status’ is going to come into play, as evidence  of her  immorality….or her infertility, or as an oblique commentary on the multiple religious and political affiliations of her `tribe’…the despised Samaritans. Given all these factors, how dare she talk back like this?….and what’s up with those complicated theological questions?

ALL OUR YESTERDAYS:JESUS AND THE WOMAN AT THE WELL (3)

 

625px-Angelika_Kauffmann_-_Christus_und_die_Samariterin_am_Brunnen_-1796

 

 

 

`…And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death…’

 

The story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman by a well is one of the more famous stories from the gospel of John. Artists and filmmakers have poured color and light into its outlines. Social  science analysts have attempted to lift the corner of the story’s surface in order to show us something of the social and cultural complexities seething beneath it. Biblical scholars have attempted to unpack hidden elements of this narrative for us by moving behind text and background and dipping into the dynamics of storytelling, poetics, and literary theory.

That’s what I want to begin to explore  here…Ever wanted to be a writer or storyteller?….Ever wonder how the really good ones do it?

One of the mechanics of storytelling that you might have run across as you studied the works of novelists, or considered learning more about the creative writing process is called `foreshadowing’

Wikipedia helpfully points out

Foreshadowing is a literary device in which a writer gives an advance hint of what is to come later in the story. Foreshadowing often appears at the beginning of a story, or a chapter, and it helps the reader develop expectations about the upcoming events.

 

So, (you ask, breathlessly) what does `foreshadowing’ have to do with this story about Jesus and the woman at the well? I suggest we turn back a couple of pages, or scroll up a bit and look at the story that closes out the third chapter of John’s Gospel.

In this story  the ambivalent or hostile religious authorities are attempting to engineer a bit of tension between  the followers of john the Baptist and those now `going  over’ to his cousin, Jesus. The storyteller helpfully supplies some chronology. All this happened before John went to prison….for making critical remarks about someone’s marriage (btw).

So, we have the narrative seedlings of intergroup rivalry and tension and the faint reminder of the reasons for John’s exit stage left. In his reported responses, he rejoices that Jesus is growing in popularity and likens his own role to that of a `best man’ at a wedding. There has been another wedding story, not too long ago, in this gospel . In THAT story , Jesus miraculously provided a large amount of wine. John’s remarks not only implicitly link the actions of Jesus to this earlier story they also prepare the ground for what lies ahead.

In order to dig a little deeper into that we need to unpack another literary/cultural device….that of the allusive echo.

ALL OUR YESTERDAYS?

Some of you will recall this as the title of a Startrek episode from the late 1960s….or perhaps the  novel by Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. Others will recall that it was the tile of a British TV series in the early 1960s that explored the causes leading to the Second World War.

I am confident that the  writers of the British TV series intended that their use of the  phrase `all our yesterdays’ echo a line from  Macbeth’s last  soliloquy in Act five of the famous Shakespeare play. `Star trek’….um, not so much. In at least one of  these cases, the writers  imagined  that an exposure to the works of Shakespeare created a `shared cultural context’ for both storyteller and (British) audience. They hoped that this  audience would `get’ a nod towards  the  original  narrative, imagery, or character and see something echoed, however faint, in the contemporary story being presented to them. Such an echo might be more allusive, or even somewhat faint or ambient. It will not offer a point-by-point linear correspondence with its source material.  But it will occur in a shared frame of reference.

Switch gears, here. If we allow that John’s audience `grew up’ under a hearing of the Old Testament stories accompanied by additional elaboration and commentary, then we might allow that they have a dynamic cultural memory potentially more attuned to allusions and echoes drawn from this source material.  Biblical Scholar Richard Hays has profitably/ explored this idea in his books `Echoes of Scripture in the letters of Paul’ and `Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels’    Hays  acknowledges  his own study of literary theory and poetics as a basis for  his ideas in this regard.  He specifically mentions John Hollander’s book `Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After’

At the site that makes `Figure of Echo’ FREELY AVAILABLE to read online, I found this helpful description.

`Looking at echo in its literal, acoustic sense, echo in myth, and echo as literary allusion, Mr. Hollander concludes with a study of the rhetorical status of the figure of echo, and the ancient and newly interesting trope of metalepsis, or transumption, which it appears to embody. Centered on ways by which Milton’s poetry echoes, and is echoed by, other texts, The Figure of Echo deals well with Spencer and other Renaissance writers, with romantic poets such as Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth, and with echoes of their nineteenth-century forebears in such modern poets as Hardy, Eliot, Stevens, Frost, Williams and Hart Crane.”

`Trope?’    Wikpedia to the rescue….

A literary trope is the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.

and….unhhh….metalepsis…??

Metalepsis is a figure of speech in which reference is made to something by means of another thing that is remotely related to it, either through a causal relationship, or through another figure of speech.

Of course, for some this is all  going to sound a little too Dead, White and European……a far cry from  the Gospel of John. But similar ideas about literature and poetry exist elsewhere(Asia, for example) ….and, thanks to the scholarship of Richard Hays and others we can pick up on this dynamic in the  play of echoes in Biblical texts and stories.

Here is what John leaves us with at the end of in three

He foreshadows group tension as a theme with a story of smaller intergroup rivalry

We are reminded of John the Baptist’s secondary and diminishing role. John’s `moment in the sun/graceful exit stage left’ comes to us via a speech that includes references to weddings and property transfer.

We will see how all this connects to the story of Jesus meeting the woman by the well.

(Stay tuned)

 

 

JESUS AND THE WOMAN AT THE WELL PT 2

 

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JESUS AND THE WOMAN AT THE WELL: FRAMING THE PICTURE

We are digging into the story about Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman by a well.

The last time I posted, I began this exploration of this well-known story from the gospel of john by diving into an art historian’s way of analyzing pictures and a linguist taking a semiotic approach to understanding a form of Asian theater. I did this because I think these tools or lenses might be helpful in looking into all the dimensions this story.(They have helped me.) My other agenda, of course, is to set us up for looking at this story as `art.’

HOWEVER, before we explore the story AS art I want to take another brief (but tangled)detour and touch on how different artists have approached this story.

please click on the links to get to the artworks I refer to.

http://www.christianiconography.info/newStuffForXnCours/catacumbasCristianas/womanWell.html

Above is an early fourth century image from the catacombs of this well known story .

The second link will get you to a comprehensive sampling of the way artists throughout history have approached this episode.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Paintings_of_Jesus_and_the_Samaritan_woman_at_the_welL

As you will see, painters from  different eras  have framed this story in the compositional and pictorial conventions of their  time, in order to render it palpable or visually accessible to their peers.  Sometimes the landscape surrounding the characters seems more European than Middle Eastern.  Sometimes , the artists will depict lead `players’  and any supporting cast as contemporaries of the viewing audience.

One artist depicted the encounter as an almost convivial get together between two youngish people in their local bar. Jesus and woman share the same horizontal plane, and lean into a conversation, or pause and lean back as one or other scores a point in the friendly exchange. You would have to be `in the know’ to pick up on the momentous theological import of this occasion. The title plate helps.

Theologians and missiologists refer to these kinds of stylistic liberties as `contextualization.’ We can try to move from what they are talking about to (seeing) how these painters employed their tools of the trade. Stereotypically (enough) if we try and bend ideas about `contextualization ‘ around the notion of artistic depictions of biblical stories, we think of exotic cultures and `ethno arts.’  we might gravitate towards paintings involving a blue skinned Christ sitting cross legged beside a well, such as we might see the work of the Indian artist, A.D Thomas.

http://indigenousjesus.blogspot.com/2012/09/a-brief-history-of-visual_24.html

We might imagine the story as seen through the eyes and artistic skills of He Qui, and find ourselves looking at a brightly colored image that resembles a Chinese paper cut.

https://www.heqiart.com/store/p156/22_Samaritan-Woman-at-the-Well_Limited_Edition.html

We might have harder time thinking about European artists in the medieval, Renaissance and Counter Reformational traditions as `contextualizers’…but this is what they did.

(However)  It is not just dressing up characters and depicting buildings so that they look  like  come from the same historical era as artist and audience.

All these things are balanced   by the economy of gesture. What I mean by this is we can simply recall where the story is going by looking at how Jesus points to himself in some of these paintings, or gestures behind him while making a remark (presumably?) about temples and traditions. The woman at the well seems incredulous that Jesus would ask her for a drink in one canvas. Her open mouth and gesturing hands are eloquent.  In another she looks   somewhat pensive or taken aback when Jesus confronts her about her five husbands(?). All this comes across in a downward glance, or her hand held over her breast. The artist uses Facial expression, body posture, and stylized gesture to underscore a conventional reading of this story in a setting in which art maker and viewer share a social/cultural context and a Christian tradition. .

In the 17th Century  john, Bulwer wrote an entire treatise on the language of gestures, primarily for those in the pulpit. Gestures play a role, not only in helping to tell the story `behind’ the picture…but also in some traditions to impart or underscore somewhat condensed versions of spiritual concepts.

In some depictions of the woman at the well story, the background details and even the well itself is depicted in ways to communicate spiritual significance. Leaving natural representation behind, some iconographers would depict the well so that its shape echoed a baptistery….or its (now) six sides carried a subtle hint of the six ages of man. Even the woman at the well became stylized as an important apostolic figure….saint Photine. We could look at  a picture about this story executed by an image-maker in the orthodox tradition and be confronted by a highly evolved symbolic language and condensed spiritual traditions.

And now for something……….

Someone like the Victorian painter William Dyce took a completely different approach . Dyce tried hard to get all the main points of the story, as he saw them, front and center. http://www.bmagic.org.uk/objects/1897P8/images/136062

Gone are the packed gestures, and the lush colors and textures that placed the story with a painter and era older European art history. Here, Dyce, in an illustrative style reminiscent of his contemporaries the Pre Raphaelites, composed a picture intended to be read primarily as a visual text…..and a text laden with inescapable theological implications. Christ, in his `humiliation’ is seated lower than the woman descending down the path towards the well. His purple robe (royalty?) is laid aside, while a flesh colored shirt (his incarnation?) gave way to some green cloth pushing through, suggesting perhaps the promise of new life. The thematic signaling `through ‘this illustrative artwork is not a rich feast for the senses as in some great European depictions of this scene in earlier eras of art history. Nor is it coded with the dense and  sometimes obscure allusions made by the iconographers. What Dyce offers  is a painted text, in which the artist wants to make sure  that theologically correct premises about the incarnation and the  new life  were front, center and clearly available  to  the literate observer.

While I think that an artist like William Dyce  needs to be  looked at (appreciatively?) in his time and cultural framework, I also think that John’s original story   and its telling  has much to tell us about the complexities of art and in depth audience engagement.

I am not suggesting that he did not hold to at least some of the ideas artists like William Dyce set out to illustrate. I do want to suggest, however,  that there is much more  we can learn about art, interfaith dialogue, and open questions from John’s approach to storytelling.

(stay tuned)

 

 

 

THE WOMAN AT THE WELL: WHERE DO WE BEGIN?

DSCN0105

I want to begin a series of short, conversational explorations of a well-known story from the Gospel of John. This story is from the fourth chapter…although strictly speaking, the last bit of chapter three should be included as well. The story concerns a well side meeting a very worn out Jesus, and a woman from Samaria.

As John tells it, Jesus is very tired and thirsty and takes a rest by a well while his friends go shopping for food. When a woman comes to draw water, He asks her for a drink. In the ensuing dialog we learn that the request was considered a bit transgressive, and Jesus tries (apparently unsuccessfully at first) to turn the conversation to deeper things. The conversation DOES get on track, however, running into/through or past ethno cultural roadblocks, questions about marriage, and religious traditions. Jesus ends up in the woman’s hometown and the people there get a chance to assess the man and message for themselves.

Of course, stories like this one have multiple layers and that is what I hope to explore over some short(ish) postings in the future. Over the years , I have tried to come up with (or have run across) ways of processing bits of art or media events (stories, theater, film) that takes these different layers into  account when drilling down into the `real meaning’  or perhaps intended significance  of  the work.

Art historians (Like Erwin Panofsky) talk about  the observable content of an artwork (say, thirteen men sitting round a table sharing a meal) the possible conventional interpretation of such  a work (`The Last Supper’) and then an even deeper  level  involving the imagery and symbolism (if any) that might have `spoken’ to the painting’s first viewers, or original intended audience.

Coincidentally, a few painters have tackled this well-known story about the woman at the well. We will touch on that, too.

Another thinker (Linguist Alton Becker) gives some guidelines in analyzing certain forms of theater. I have found his approach helpful. In some ways, it is a bit like Panofsky’s grid….in other ways it is different.

At a micro level, the elements that make up a scene or text (words and phrases) must hang together, meaningfully.

(Then) It helps if we understand the `genre’ or the kind of story we are looking at.

In addition: Will the relationship between the author/storyteller and their (original) audience throw any light on how the storyteller composes and tells the story? Will this insight help our reading?

Next, we have to ask about the world within the story in order to understand the meaning of all the details included.

Then there is the world `around’ the story…and the storyteller, and the audience. What is going on in their `real world’ that casts shadows over the story?

However, these guidelines have their limits. These grids and layers could (unwittingly) shape, distort, or edit the perceived meaning and significance of the art or story we are trying to drill down into.

We also have to combine our caution about OUR grids and categories with some awareness of John’s original audience and their grids built from the culture and history of the time. How did THEY hear the story…and how does that flavor what WE hear?

In addition, we will see the story `works’ as much by symbolism, allusion, and suggestion as it does by plain statement. This too is in keeping with the shared cultural memory of the first audience. They were used to hearing stories and teachings from their own traditions told in this way. The storyteller is pitching his multilayered story to all who have ` ears to hear’ …those who will pick up and synthesize the different echoes and resonances buried in the heart of the story. They will be the ones that get it.

(STAY TUNED FOR MORE)

guercino_christ_samaritaine

 

 

 

 

WIRED FOR STORY

I am reposting this from nearly two years ago.  It is my way of preparing the ground for some upcoming blogs about a particular story in  John’s gospel.

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON JOHN: INNOVATION, CREATIVITY AND CONNECTIONS IN THE FOURTH GOSPEL

 

your brain on john

IF I ONLY HAD …..CONNECTIONS?

I was attracted to a recent news story about the new images and models we now have of the human brain and its connections. The article I was reading pointed out that this new map of the brain depicted a region housed within the larger area dealing with language. This region, 55B, lights up, apparently, when an individual listens to a story. I have already commented in a previous blog about how our sense of identity and social connection is  linked to telling and listening to stories. Here I was reading about  some of the brain wiring  behind such ideas.

I decided to dig into this a bit more, and ended up watching H Sebastian Seung’s TED talk about some of the new findings in brain mapping and neural pathways. Seung was professor of computational neuroscience at MIT and is now at Princeton. The Wikipedia entry describes him ` as a multidisciplinary expert with ongoing work and research in neuroscience, physics, and bioinformatics.’ His proposal, sketched in his TED talk, and fleshed out in a subsequent   book (listed below) concerns ideas about identity formation. In Seung’s informed opinion, this formation is less about genetics and more about connections. Who we `are’ or who we are becoming  is less about prior coding, and more about  the bridges, highways , neural paths and passages that build  meaningful relationships within the brain. There is now even a National Institute of Health project called `The Connecticome’ exploring this developing hypothesis further. In fact, I wonder if part of the brain lights up as we listen to new stories about how the brain works. Is it all simply a case of `I connect, therefore I am’??

Just prior to watching  Dr Seung’s TED talk I had been on the phone  with  a film maker friend  visiting southern California from the UK , and I had been describing my own inquiry into the Gospel of John as a possible resource for some of our  ideas about  and examples of creativity and innovation.

I had done some reading on John and his storytelling style,as examined  in the light of the social and cultural background of the time. Some scholars emphasized the   Jewish background to John’s work, referring to the temple and feast symbolism throughout the gospel. These scholars also pointed to an audience, who, along with the author, had deep exposure to the founding narratives of Israel, via repeated listening to recitation, paraphrase, and commentary. The shared cultural frame of reference  is described as  `Oral-Scribal.’

Other scholars emphasize possible Greco Roman influence, alluding to everything from Greek dramatic structures to Roman trial procedure as a framework for John’s narrative units. Scholars would also talk about the way in which some classical orators at the time   would mentally create `memory theaters’ and  elaborate visual cues in order to help them remember the different points of the speech they wanted to deliver. That is the approach that John took when he was composing and proclaiming his gospel, they argue. These various fields of inquiry into  oral scribal culture and the Greco Roman  rhetorical  strategies  overlap  as parts of   what has been described as a `first century media culture’……I list some resources for further reading at the end.

Another resource that sparks my thinking is one-man theater performer Brad Sherrill. In a class I was teaching, I used some video clips of him performing sequences of John’s gospel from memory. I was pointing out how he used simple visual props and even physical engagement with the audience at times as aids for his own recall. At this point in the class, we were discussing liturgical practices in which images, symbols and actions played a role in both personal   recollection, as and the passing on of what some call `social memory.’ I also noted that not only symbols, images and gestures, but engagement with the gospel itself  served to transmit and transform.   Sherrill had pointed out , when interviewed,  that the very act of memorizing John’s Gospel `changed him’

Michael Wheeler’s book on the impact of the fourth gospel on Victorian visual and literary culture seems, at first, somewhat distant from what I have been talking about so far. The author gives an account of the Gospel’s significance in  that era, both in terms of those that gave  a faithful, conservative reading of its stories and themes, as well  as those who  engaged with  the  emerging questions concerning the gospel’s authenticity  and history. Poets, hymnodists, engravers, and painters attempted to breathe new life and shed new light on familiar passages and narratives. Once we have dipped below the surface of their imagery, rendered perhaps all too familiar in numerous reproductions, we can perhaps learn something from their studies and breakthrough

A BIGGER PICTURE?

Perhaps we can  step back and  imagine   the ways in which the background to the earliest  proclamation and reception  of John’s Gospel ,  the hard earned insights of one man theatrical performers , and the  informed appreciation of this gospel’s impact on Victorian culture can richly overlap. Will this shed new light  on the rich dynamic and potential of this gospel  for our  own thinking on creativity and innovation? Let’s work together to make this possible. What stands in our way?

THE TEACHER OF ISRAEL?

In some circles, the term `Silo thinking’  describes a mode of thinking in organizations in  which different departments  stay internally focused and do not share  information and ideas  with other departments. This negatively affects the growth and mission of that business. We can stretch the concept and wrap it around a larger failure of the imagination .  Will this kind of failure prevent us from making meaningful connections?

Of course, our favorite `’Silo Thinker’   in John’s Gospel is the Rabbi Nicodemus. John depicts Jesus growing frustrated with the other’s inability (or unwillingness) to hear how the older prophecies of renewal and restoration  had personal application. Some scholars suggest today that both Nicodemus and Jesus had with them a circle of followers when they met that evening. Nicodemus’s opening gambit ` we know you are a teacher sent’ was, apparently, more an acknowledgement   of what `some were saying ‘rather than evidence that the Rabbi had any serious skin in the game. The  infamous remark about reentering his mother’s womb sounds more like an attempt at wit, perhaps at the expense of Jesus and company. Was Nicodemus playing to the gallery? Did Jesus rise to the challenge?  The emphatic push back suggests so. . `You!? THE teacher of Israel?? (etc) Well….let me tell you what WE know..!!’   OK, so it is not ` Hamilton’…… but as exchanges go, it feels a bit more volatile than an initial silent reading off a page might suggest.

At least john’s description of Nicodemus’s clueless remarks carries faint echoes of other major characters in Israel’s overarching narrative. Abraham asked his mysterious visitors how his aged wife could possibly get pregnant. Ezekiel reflected on the improbability of a valley of bones coming back to life. If there was hope for these questioning characters, then maybe there was hope for Nicodemus, and, elsewhere, the dense disciples. Perhaps there was also hope for the ones in John’s  first audience, listening to the storyteller, and struggling to join up the dots.

 

THE WAY OF THE SEVENFOLD SECRET.

Maybe Lilias Trotter broke John Ruskin’s heart in some way when she abandoned a promising career in art and went to Algiers as a missionary among the Muslims. Ruskin was a highly regarded art critic and social theorist in Victorian England. His influence and ideas were profoundly important to many of the artists and writers that Wheeler talks about in his study of the Fourth Gospel and its impact on the arts of that period(see above.)  Ms Trotter had been Ruskin’s protégé at one point.  Ruskin was sorely disappointed in her radical  decision . However, we can see that the luminous drawings and watercolors of the landscapes and peoples she travelled among still give clear evidence of her prodigious talent, and Ruskin’s guidance and teaching. She not only retained her artistic skills, she also brought imaginative insight and creativity to her approach to missions. This becomes apparent in the way in which she used the Gospel of John. At one point in her work, she had gained audience with the somewhat reclusive Sufi Muslims. She wrote a study for them on the `I am’ sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel, called `The Way of the Sevenfold Secret.’ She decanted each of the identity statements into a form that both preserved their integrity while making them approachable for her Sufi friends. For example, she described   `The Way, the truth and the life’ of John 14 as being somewhat like a path, a light to guide on the path, and the strength to walk the path. Jesus’s own conversation with His followers echoes such an understanding. In fact, this understanding makes it available for meaningful conversation with other traditions and their symbols, such as `the triple gem’ of Buddhism. Let us remember that Jesus also offered His bewildered and frightened disciples a house with many rooms and an abundant vineyard as two potent metaphors for refuge.

We have travelled a long way from the new map of the brain, and the section that glows when listening to a story. I cannot say how the scholars and practitioners I have talked about would react to the use I have made of their ideas and expertise.

I can only say that trying to make connections between these ideas has helped my own thinking on art, creativity and mission.

 

Here are some of the sources I drew from for these remarks.

Seung, Sebastian. Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are. New York: Mariner Books, 2013.

Brant, Jo-Ann A. Dialogue and Drama: Elements of Greek Tragedy in the Fourth Gospel. MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.

—. John (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament). Edited by Charles Talbert , Mikeal Parsons. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2011.

Anthony Le Donne, Tom Thatcher, ed. The Fourth Gospel in First-Century Media Culture (The Library of New Testament Studies). Bloomsbury T&T Clark; Reprint edition, 2013.

Cotterell, Peter. “Sociolinguistics and Biblical Interpretation.” Vox Evangelica, 1986: 61-76.

Wheeler, Michael. St John and the Victorians. Cambridge University Press , 2012.

Brad Sherrill    http://www.gospelofjohn.com/homepage2.htm

Lilias Trotter   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilias_Trotter

 

 

 

OUT OF THE BOX (AGAIN!!)

A blast from the past!  This was originally posted just over a year ago,  but as I recently  reconnected with Dianne Collard, one of the people featured in this blog, I felt this was worth re posting……

boxxx

Sorting through a number of boxes of loose bits of paper you kept for obscure and long forgotten reasons can be a bit daunting. It is always a good thing, therefore, when you stumble across buried treasure. In this case the treasure is a photocopy of an interview from British magazine THIRD WAY (March 2000) with Neil MacGregor, then director of London’s national Gallery. The interview took place during the much-celebrated `SEEING SALVATION’ exhibition. This event brought many out to see and reflect on the spiritual themes and issues depicted in some of the masterpieces of European art. MacGregor was quick to note that these artworks provided gallery visitors with a context for reconsideration and evaluation of fundamental Christian doctrines. Great art, in exhibitions like this one, planted seeds in the hearts of minds of those who might never visit a church or endure a sermon. 

 In this interview he was also asked about public spending and `money for art’ when faced with other pressing social needs. He made the point that great art was both a highly prized commodity, but also something provided in service of a public seeking refreshment and renewal as they spent time gazing at publicly owned national treasures. Macgregor felt that such masterpieces of great art served as a reference point and an oasis for the receptive viewer. The very act of looking carefully at great art had restorative properties. He pointed out that many city workers would come and spend an hour or two in the gallery seeking such restoration.

 Perhaps we can say that great art has a humanizing and socializing function. However, one of the things art `asks’ us to do is slow down. This can be very hard to do in our world of summary glances, snap decisions, instant access and all enveloping media.

Art critic Peter Clothier talks about `Slow Looking’ and provides a `one hour/one painting’ experience in different museums and galleries in the US. Here he encourages those that sign up for his sessions to adopt a more receptive and meditative approach to exploring the surface of a designated piece of artwork. Here, the issue is less about the canonical status of the painted surface, and more about the slowing down and opening up of the act of perception. In our media saturated era, both MacGregor’s hurrying city worker, and Clothier’s seated `mindful’ viewer can find their souls renewed by art, and the intentional act of slow, receptive exploration of an object or surface. (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012)

Dianne B Collard was working with her husband Glenn in European missions when she received the awful news about the murder of her eldest son in California. I have often heard her tell the story of the profound anguish and the deep soul searching that followed. As she wrestled with the thoughts and questions that grow in the shadow of a terrible event like this, she sought solace in nearby galleries. At first, she would spend time with the classics, but then I have heard her tell of the first steps she took towards some emotional equilibrium and restoration in gallery rooms with abstract art on the walls. It was there, surrounded by artwork celebrating the essentials of form, color and line that she found the beginnings of peace and the seeds of a new direction, a new journey. Sometime after that, she began to write a book (`I choose to forgive’) that explored the dynamic of extending reconciliation and forgiveness towards her son’s killer. The first version of the book evidently struck a chord. It has been translated into over sixteen languages. The revised/expanded version will bring readers/followers up to date  on the story, including  describing  the ongoing restorative relationship with the killer as he prepares for life after prison.  When I last saw Dianne, she was being interviewed at Fuller Seminary by artist Makoto Fujimura of   I AM and the Brehm Center about  the progress on  the film version of this amazing story.

We recently corresponded about a magazine article talking about abstract art challenging the eye and brain and pushing us to see the world in new ways. While I believe that Dianne came to see the world `in new ways’ I have never heard  her using  the language of art theory or history  when describing the profound impact the abstract art  had on her.

Both Neil MacGregor’s hope for the benefits offered by looking at the great masters on display, and Peter Clothier’s message about the value of slow looking/mindful viewing of paintings seem to find a deeper confirmation here in Dianne’s experience with abstract art and the path she subsequently found herself walking.  (http://ichoosetoforgive.com/)

We have probably all heard some version of John Ruskin’s famous aphorism about `hundreds talking, thousands thinking, but the one who sees gets at the heart of everything. Seeing wraps poetry, prophecy, and religion all in one’

In different ways we have talked about thinkers and practitioners of `the art of seeing’  that might help some of us  out of the box of our own preconceptions and bad perceptual habits when it comes to thinking about and looking into art, be it  classical modern , post…and even metamodern! Let’s keep our eyes open.

 

 

THE SCREAM

 

`I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature’ Edward Munch

A few weeks ago, I went to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to see a major exhibition  of the work  of Edward Munch. This artist revealed a commitment to relentless self-examination and emotional exploration through a series of figurative paintings, including a number of self-portraits. Munch is perhaps best known for his painting called `The Scream.’ This painting, however, was not included in the show.

After a couple of hours  in this exhibition, I made my way  to the  6th floor  and a show about German painting since the 1960s I spent a long time  with  Anselm Kiefer’s   dark and emotionally charged canvasses with their dark themes and broken surfaces.  In these artworks  Kiefer used a combination of different materials and paint   to reflect on the emotional and psychic wounds of recent (20th Century) German history. In combining different elements on a painted surface, he also hoped to transform them. He has alluded  to alchemy as a metaphor for this transformation. His art acknowledges recent history, but also   references  some of the more primal mythologies of the distant past. Kiefer has also commented on the transience of some of the material, as if the change and decay of some of these incorporated elements   contributes to what   he wants the resulting image to `say.’ I believe that Kiefer’s  dark and broken canvasses  seek to  embrace the past  and transform the combined materials into a signpost  for  the future.

As I was reading about the different material that the artist had ground up and combined to create his dark, painted visions, I thought of another artist who   also ground up a very different variety of materials, from fragile seashells to precious stones, and  worked them into his medium. The Artist Makoto Fujimura went to Japan on a Japanese governmental scholarship and received training in the traditional method of painting known as Nihonga. While `Nihonga’ is a general term for  `Japanese style painting’ artists in this tradition  grind and blend the different elements into their  pigments.  Makoto,  too, uses his `prepared’ paints to create large abstract paintings that reflect the qualities of the chosen materials as well as personal themes of embrace and transformation. He   is also familiar with those aspects of Japanese aesthetic tradition that celebrate the broken, the imperfect, and the transient. Makoto combines precious materials and sometimes humble and broken surfaces in order to make art   that contributes in some way to a transformative vision of the future.  But…….do  these surfaces  also  grapple with or even embrace aspects of recent history  like Anselm Kiefer and his brooding works?

 In  books like  `Refractions’ and `Silence and Beauty’  Makoto finds  much to celebrate and build upon in his gleanings from  the culture and traditions of Japan He writes of aspects of the Japanese tradition  that hew to an aesthetic of brokenness and humility. He reflects upon the possible influence of Christianity on some of the origins of the Japanese tea ceremony. He explores the artistry of novelist Shusaku Endo who grounds much of his fiction in exploring the dark period of Christian persecution in Seventeenth century Japan. Perhaps, like Munch and Kiefer, he pauses before darker episodes in more recent history as well. I do know he understands the place of tears.

Makoto has  written a meditation  upon   on the variety of  precious materials  used in the Nihonga traditions of painting  and  tentatively  compared  them  to the precious perfume  that Mary poured upon  the feet of Jesus at a dinner party. Makoto suggests that this lavish outpouring was a response to Jesus’s earlier display of empathy and compassion  when He wept  at the graveside of her brother, Lazarus. Those tears were seeds that flowered in Mary’s beautiful gesture.

 One classic example of an artwork  that `weeps with those who weep’ is Picasso’s painting `Guernica.’ I was fortunate to see this work in New York in the mid-1970s. On this giant canvas, Picasso expressed his outrage over the Nazi bombing and obliteration of a small Basque village. Picasso channeled his grief and anger through a palette of muted colors and a vocabulary of distorted forms. The events he was responding to were (to use the cliché) ripped from the headlines .The angular,   distorted forms were   very much in Picasso’s style. . However, when interviewed and asked about (other?) influences upon the work, Picasso   referred back to a 16th Century altarpiece, and the artistry of Matthias Grunewald.

Five years ago, I was in Colmar, France and I spent nearly a week daily visiting the museum that housed this multi-paneled altarpiece….known as the Isenheim altarpiece. These panels were on display in a chapel that was so cold there was a small heating booth on one side of the room for the occasional relief of  the  pilgrim/visitors who came to spend hours with this great work. This artwork had originally been commissioned for an Antonite monastery where the brothers took care of sufferers from a mysterious illness known as `Saint Anthony’s fire.’ Those inflicted with this illness experienced excruciating symptoms of both body and mind, before succumbing. The multi paneled artwork, viewed in the context of the Eucharist, told the story of the sufferings of the  founder of the monastic order, St Anthony of the Desert.  The panels also  pictured the gospel narrative, the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

The artist did not combine a variety of found materials or grind up seashells and precious stones to add to his surface. Nor did he limit his palette to muted colors. He paid close attention to the ravages and the symptoms of this disease among its sufferers, and worked what he saw into his depiction of the broken skin and twisted limbs of his central cruciform figure. Other panels were  coded with  incidental references to  medicinal  plants and local remedies for some of the symptoms  of this illness, but  it is the central panel  with its enormous Christ figure, both cruelly nailed, and also  visibly suffering from some of the symptoms of this very illness  that draws our attention. It spoke (and speaks) of identification and embrace.

We began with Munch’s sense of a scream that shudders through nature itself. Anselm Kiefer has painted large, dark broken surfaces that embrace German history, and perhaps echoing other screams. Makoto Fujimura’s engagement with   Japanese artistic traditions includes breaking down and combining precious elements so that they shimmer and illuminate his own creative embrace of historical, cultural, and personal themes.

Picasso certainly channeled his own anger and tears through muted colors and typically distorted forms, in his response to the outrage of the bombing of Guernica. When asked by a Nazi officer if he was responsible for `this monstrosity’ (meaning the painting) Picasso famously replied `No, you are…’

It was Grunewald he alluded back to, though. In addition, it is here, on this 16th Century altarpiece that we find a twisted, cruciform figure that some suggest was / (is) intended to embrace, suffer with, and transform the desperate viewer.

Munch’s `Scream’ painting was jarringly absent from the San Francisco exhibition, yet its presence could be `felt’ echoing   in some of the other work. Grunewald’s multi paneled altar in the small French museum made the hideous Christ figure  shockingly present, perhaps answering those screams through nature, and human history, with a cry of its own.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edvard_Munch

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anselm_Kiefer

http://www.makotofujimura.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guernica_(Picasso)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isenheim_Altarpiece

http://www.musee-unterlinden.com/en/collections/the-isenheim-altarpiece/