Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Seeing Stars

While in seminary back in 2005, I took a wonderful class on church art throughout history.  On a cold February day, we considered cathedrals.  By that time, I had spent my student year in Scotland, at the end of which my mother and I toured the circumference of England, visiting so many cathedrals along the way that by the time we got to Yorkminster, this Calvinist Protestant was ready to scream, No more cathedrals!

No more opulence, no more vaulted ceilings and ornate stonework, no more gothic arches and clever niches, no more high pulpits and graves inside church – it was all just too much for my love-of-plainness soul.

Photo by Francois Thomas at Wikimedia Commons
My visceral reaction had calmed quite a bit in the intervening year, so that by the time the class assignment to create our own scrapbook of church art came around, I was glad to have snapshots of all those vaulted ceilings and of the chance to learn more about what it was all intended to symbolize.

Often Jesus appears in the center of the cathedral ceiling sitting on a throne in these art pieces that make up part of the worship space (and it is pretty cool that even the ceilings were considered part of the worship ‘space’).

The artistic representation is beautiful.

Yet I am troubled –  why is it that Jesus is on the throne?  We are so in love with imperial regalia.

Jesus comes as a servant king, if any kind of king at all.  Why does not our art, especially our grandest, image Jesus on his knees, rather than as a kingly demanding figure suggesting that we must be on ours?  Not that I object to being on my knees, but it seems we’re missing something important.  Rilke well knew how the painting of Jesus in the regalia of the earthly king actually disguises him, changes him into something he was, he is, not.

We must not portray you in king’s robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.

Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.

Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you.*

To be fair to the long-ago architects of these fabulous structures, they had a very real sense of God as architect and master builder.

But I also learned that for them, the positioning of Jesus on the throne at the apex of the high vaulted ceilings was to prefigure Judgment day.

Like everyone else visiting these places, I always look up and am reminded of my very small place within the cosmos.  But it is not judgment that I am minded of.

For where they saw reckoning, I see the stars.

*Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, Rainer Maria Rilke.  Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Trans.  New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, p. 50

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