One reason I love living in a large city is that it offers so much in the way of education and culture. Both of those were free for the taking this past Saturday at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art when Mike Graves, a preaching professor and director of continuing education at St. Paul School of Theology, led two two-hour tours of New Testatment-related art on display there.
With the help of Nelson docent Donna Houtteman, in the first tour Mike walked nearly 20 of us through more than half a dozen works of art, describing (and even reading) the biblical texts on which the artists drew and helping us see the relationship between art and religion.
We began, for instance, by looking at a painting (pictured above) called "Saint Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin" by Guercino, otherwise known as Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, an Italian Baroque artist.
Mike and Donna drew our attention to a small oxen on the right side of the painting. It's a clue as to who the artist depicted in the painting is because each of the gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (at least those are the names attached to the gospels) is represented by a particular symbol. For Luke it's the oxen (John = eagle; Mark - winged lion; Matthew = winged human).
So if we're attuned to that symbolism we know we're looking at a painting of Luke. The painting was done in the 1650s and represents a Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. That Reformation emphasized faith formed "sola scriptura," or by scripture alone. But in the painting the Bible is closed and placed in a secondary position, while Luke points to a work of art (a painting within a painting) that shows Mary and Jesus. It's the artist's way of saying that Jesus, not the Bible, is the center of Christian faith and those Protestants who want to strip churches of art have it wrong.
Well, that's just a small sample of our two-hour tour, which wound up outside the main building at the modern sculpture called "Return of the Prodigal Son" (pictured here), by Jacques Lipchitz. It represents what is perhaps Jesus' most famous parable, which can be found in the 15th chapter of Luke.
As Mike explained the parable:
"The father has two sons. And the younger one says he wants his share of the estate -- just wants his share, but he wants it while the father is alive. He really is dishonoring the father. He really said, 'I wish you were dead, Dad.' And he takes his share of the estate. The Bible says he squandered it in riotous living. . .He does squander it but there's something else that happens. There was a famine in the land and he could not find food. So he goes to work feeding pigs. That's very dirty work, not kosher. And then there's the best line in the gospel of Luke: 'When he came to himself,' that is, when he realized who he was, who he was meant to be, he realized, 'Oh my gosh, my father's workers are living better than this. I'll go back. I'll confess my sins and I'll become a worker.'"
After the son returns and his father welcomes him back with a big party, the second son feels anger at this outpouring over his wayward brother. As Mike pointed out, the parable ends on the front porch with the father urging the angry son to come join the party for he is loved as well. And, of course, that's a question often facing us. Will we stay separated from God because we think we've been treated unfairly or will we acknowledge God's love is big enough for all?
By the way, the Nelson is happy to set up docent-led tours of art for anyone on almost any subject. And Kansas Citians should take advantage of the fact that we have such a great gallery here and that we have resources at several seminaries to help us understand religious art and so much more.
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FAREWELL TO AN EFFECTIVE EVANGELICAL
Among Christians who would identify themselves as evangelical, one of my favorites has been Ron Sider, a wise, caring man who has pushed Christians, especially evangelicals, to become more sensitive to the way our economy at times oppresses the poor. The news about Sider this week is that he's retiring as founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action. Ron has been a prophetic voice of reason and we can all hope that others will follow in his footsteps.
* * *P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it, click here.