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Eucharist & Culture (March/April 2020)

Art • Music • Film • Poetry • Books

Art Review

Fra Angelico
CHRIST CROWNED WITH THORNS
Tempera and Gold on Panel
circa 1430

John Christman, SSS

I don’t like this painting. I don’t care for works of art that stridently emphasize Jesus’ suffering. Whether it’s Matthias Grünewald’s famous crucifixion scene from the Isenheim altarpiece or this renaissance masterpiece by Fra Angelico, I react negatively towards works of art that seem to confront the viewer with a singular vision of Jesus’ suffering. I often find these artworks problematic because the complex reality of salvation through Christ tends to be reduced to an act of suffering and death in these images.

The theologian Stephen Bevans when articulating his contextual models of theology observed two broadly different theological trajectories: a “creation-centered” perspective and a “redemption-centered” perspective.1 The “creation-centered” perspective emphasizes more the importance of the Incarnation, a sacramental worldview and the goodness of creation.2 A “redemption-centered” perspective emphasizes the reality of sin and “corruption” recognizing the need for God’s intervention.3 Naturally, any integrated theological viewpoint has to hold both together.4 But often, I observe, many Christians tend to be drawn more to one of these two perspectives. I fall more into a “creation-centered” perspective, and so I struggle in particular with works of art from a “redemption-centered” perspective that seem to present the viewer with the notion that Jesus’ suffering and death were the fundamental point of the Incarnation.

In this painting, by perhaps one of the greatest artists in the Christian tradition, Jesus’ suffering is emphatically portrayed. Sharp thorns pierce his skin and blood splashes out, giving a sense of the brutal force in which this “crown” was thrust upon his head. Rivulets of blood pour down Jesus’ face like tears. His face is contorted into an incredulous expression, perhaps wondering how humanity can be so cruel. Fra Angelico further manipulates the viewer’s emotions by restricting his color palette. The scene is washed in red. Even the halo glows red. Has suffering touched the divine? It’s the red eyes in this painting in particular that have always struck me as excessive. There’s little room for theological nuance with blood red eyes confronting you.

But then, upon a recent visit to a hospital, I was confronted with that very reality. I found myself standing with a family in a hospital room praying for their daughter. She was in ICU. She had been intubated and was unable to communicate. She was also clearly exhausted in her fight for recovery. When this young woman opened her eyes I saw something I was not expecting to see. The blood vessels in her eyes had burst and the whites of her eyes were now completely red. It was disarming and heartbreaking all at once. Here was Fra Angelico’s suffering Christ. Here was the body of Christ present in a young woman struggling to survive. Also present in that moment, however, was the hope and faith of family and friends gathered to support this young woman. Christ was present in numerous ways.

And with all of that being said, I still don’t like this painting. I wish it said more. I wish suffering of this sort did not exist. But Jesus’ eyes in this painting are now forever linked in my mind with that young woman’s eyes. Their suffering is entwined. And if Fra Angelico’s image of Jesus suffering helps people who tragically experience the depths of pain and suffering to know that God is with them in that horrendous experience, then I can appreciate its value.

Notes

1 Stephen Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Revised and Expanded). (New York: Orbis Books, 2002) Pg. 21-22.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.


Book Review

 

ROSEMARY NYIRUMBE: SEWING HOPE IN UGANDA
Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda
Liturgical Press
Collegeville, MN.
2019

 

This is another gem of a biography in the Liturgical Press’ series, People of God: Remarkable Lives, Heroes of Faith. Sister Rosemary Nayirumbe was born in 1956 in Northern Uganda into a family of eight children. Theirs was a strong practicing Catholic family and the seeds of a religious life vocation developed in Rosemary from a young age. When one of her older sisters bore a child, Rosemary moved out of her parents’ hut to her sister’s to help her care for her niece. At this early age, Rosemary learned the skills and attitudes of mothering, which would later prove to be the foundational virtue of her life-long ministry.

Rosemary, convinced of her vocation as a religious sister, left her family at a very young age and lied about her age to the Comboni Missionary Sisters in order to join that community at the age of 15. This community is one of several religious communities founded by Bishop Daniel Comboni to encourage native African vocations. Their charism is to serve the poor, which was very attractive to the young Rosemary. At the time she entered the Comboni community, the leaders were still all Italian and Rosemary had a difficult time adjusting to community life. Relief came when, after her religious profession, the African Comboni Sisters withdrew from the mother community and founded their own community, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Sisters. The first superior of this community was the kind and motherly Sister Annetta who saw much promise in Sister Rosemary and sent her away for further education in medicine so that she could better assist the community in its ministry.

Africa had entered a new and painful period. The kidnapping of over 250 young girls from a Christian school in 2014 by the Boka Haram horrified the whole world, but this was not an isolated incident. With the fall of Idi Amin in 1979, the Ugandan government went through a series of upheavals that led to the emergence of a number of revolutionary armies. The people suffered greatly as they were caught between the government soldiers and the militia of the revolution. The outlawed armies attacked villages. The girls and boys were taken away, and the adults were killed. Schools were closed in fear. Traveling became dangerous. Sister Rosemary and her sisters were often in danger with their students as raids were regularly conducted in the villages where the sisters had schools. The sisters hid the children in various rooms and kept them quiet until the raiders took the food they wanted and left. It was clear that the sisters would have to leave and bring the young children out of the beleaguered villages.

Once the violence and the raids had ended the sisters could go back to running schools and dispensaries. It was then that Sister Rosemary discovered her life’s calling. She noticed that young girls who had been captives of the rebels and might have returned with children were withdrawn and non-communicative. When she began to engage them in conversation, the motherly skills she had learned throughout her life helped to bring the girls out of the trauma that had so impacted them. She began a sewing school in which these girls could learn a trade and then earn a living for themselves and their children. She helped to bring new life into these young women. Because of this many more young women began to show up out of the forests seeking Sister Rosemary’s help.

The impact of her work spread beyond Africa. A lawyer from Oklahoma visited her and was enthralled with what she was doing. He “took her on” as a personal mission. He began bringing professional athletes to meet her and to engage with the children. A good deal of money was invested and tremendous improvements were made in her village. Later she became a “CNN Hero.”

Hers is an incredible story of love, courage, motherly devotion, faith and a great openness to God’s calling.

Patrick J. Riley, D.Min.
Book Review Editor

 


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